Sunday, June 4, 2017


 In  search  of   buried  treasure , swashbuckling fortune hunter  , Pierre Burleigh ,   with  a  fake  X marks the spot map for which he   paid  a  bundle ,  sent   this  unique  dispatch  in   an  empty    rum   bottle  , washed ashore on  Magnetic  Island .

Unfortunately your correspondent only visited Costa Rica for a few days, consequently seeing and understanding very little of a country which is not a ‘top of mind’ aspirational destination among many of today’s travellers except for genuine eco-freaks, or those who pass for hippies these days, or who are leaving some illegal activity and passing through on their way to another illegal activity. Way down the list are those who’ll take on the journey to Costa Rica to visit a family member, only to have their preconceptions of the country mashed like a soft banana.
I do know that Costa Rica shares a common border with Panama, which is somewhere in Central America. That means it’s in close proximity to the Canal itself, an area with a climate so evil that it took the lives of 22,000 canal constructors in the 1800s. The Canal concept brought out the stupidity and greed in investors, Emperors, Popes and Kings alike...and attracted the worst kind of piratical  behaviour.  
Given the strategic location of Costa Rica and Panama and the potential offered by its narrow isthmus separating two great oceans, trade routes in the area were attempted over the centuries. The ill-fated Darien Scheme was launched in 1698 by the Kingdom of Scotland of all places to set up an overland  trade route. Inhospitable conditions thwarted this effort and it was abandoned in April 1700.

According to the New York Daily Tribune, on August 24, 1843 a contract was entered into by Barings of London and the Republic of New Granada for the construction of a canal across the Isthmus of Darien (Isthmus of Panama). ‘The Atlantic and Pacific Canal’ was a wholly British endeavour. It was expected to be built in five years, but was never carried out. Soon other proposals arose, including a canal and/or railroad across Mexico's Isthmus of Tehuantepec. Nothing came of that plan either. In 1846 a treaty between the U.S. and New Granada  granted the United States transit rights and the right to intervene militarily in  the isthmus.
In 1849, the discovery of gold in California created demand for a crossing between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans and The Panama Railway was built by the United States to cross the isthmus. It opened in 1855 and not only became a vital trade link it largely determined the later canal route.
An all-Canal route between the oceans remained the ideal, and in 1855  William Kennish, a Manx-born engineer working for the US government, surveyed and published a report titled The Practicality and Importance of a Ship Canal to Connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. However in 1877 French Navy officer Armand Reclus, and Lucien Napoléon Bonaparte Wyse, both engineers, surveyed the route and published a French proposal for a canal. French success in building the Suez Canal inspired the planning for this new Canal in Central America.
The first attempt to construct a canal through Colombia's province of Panama began on 1 January 1881. The project was headed by the   diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, who raised considerable finance in France as a result of the huge profits generated by his successful construction of the Suez Canal. Although the Panama Canal would be only 40% as long as the Suez Canal, the Central American location would prove to be far more of an engineering challenge, due to the tropical rain forests, the climate, the need for canal locks, and the lack of any ancient established route to follow.


 De Lesseps wanted a sea-level canal (like Suez) but only visited the site a few times during the dry season - which lasts only four months of the year. He missed – or ignored - the obvious and his men were totally unprepared for the rainy season, during which the Chagres River, where the canal started, became a raging torrent, rising up to 35 feet (10 m). The dense jungle, always alive with venomous snakes, insects and spiders, was a deadly miasma of yellow fever, malaria and other tropical diseases which killed thousands of workers: by 1884 the death rate was over 200 per month. Public health measures were ineffective because the role of the mosquito as a disease carrier was then unknown. Conditions were downplayed in France to avoid recruitment problems, and the high mortality rate made it difficult to maintain an experienced workforce.

Meanwhile, up  here  in 2017…

Costa Rica’s capital is much the same as every other second-world tropical city, and looks a bit like a Pizza dropped into the jungle. San Jose’s roofs glow rusty brown against the green of the trees and the undergrowth. The ring of mountains around the edge of the Pizza are spectacularly jungle-covered and no doubt conceal fabulous beasts. The ‘fingers’ sticking upward from the Frisbee-flat ‘Pizza Plain of Rusty Roofs’ are apartment buildings, which seem out of place given there is little industry, or at least another industry besides apartment building. The city doesn’t seem to have a centre and if  there once was a CBD it has  been  demolished and cannibalised for apartment materials.
The rough-shod streets are chaotic with traffic rushing aimlessly like suicidal Lemmings looking for a cliff edge. A comparatively tidy environment and colourful painted traffic directions indicate at least a civilised veneer until you notice no one pays any heed to them. There are no rules. Huge trucks charge through suburban streets at speeds better suited to aircraft, their horns roaring threateningly from dawn to dusk. Many houses in the inner areas are moderately grand but many are locked and empty with weeds sprouting from roofs and pathways. Where are the people?  Holed up in Marie Celeste Street? Even the grandiose arches of the Vatican Embassy are stained with mould, the windows sealed, the gates shut.
Fast food is ubiquitous as it is everywhere else in the world, but the lack of a national or even local cuisine is a puzzle. The only dish with any detectable claim to a Costa Rican classic is the grindingly bland ‘Rice and Beans’. It’s advertised everywhere. I stare out at San Jose from my apartment balcony and realise that apart from  a  few curiosities the city seems devoid of stimulus.

And back in 1897…
The main Canal cutting through the mountain at Culebra was continually widened  and the angle of its slopes reduced to minimize severe landslides into the canal. Steam shovels, mechanical and electrical equipment was limited in its capabilities, and everything rusted and rotted rapidly in the aggressive tropical In France, de Lesseps kept the investment and supply of workers flowing long after it was obvious that targets were not being met. Inevitably the money ran dry. The French effort went bankrupt in 1889 after reportedly spending US$287,000,000 and losing an estimated 22,000 lives to disease and accidents, wiping out the savings of 800,000 investors. The scandal, known as the Panama Affaire, saw several of the major players prosecuted, including Gustave Eiffel.  De Lesseps and his son Charles were found guilty of misappropriation of funds and sentenced to five years' imprisonment, though this was overturned. De Lesseps, 88, was never imprisoned. Ah, the rewards of Piracy…  

The first scourges of European Piracy showed up in 1492 when Columbus and his men blundered into the Americas (he thought it was India). The news of the New World spread fast. He made four trips to the Americas but touched only the southern half of Mexico and moved south, leaving the rest of America still “undiscovered.” At that time, the arbiter of the world was not a king, but Pope Alexander VI of the notorious Borgia family, and as a Spaniard he decided to deed all the newly discovered land to Spain and Portugal, both leading maritime powers and very Catholic.
Frank Drake , Esq. (Knight), Pirate .

The discovery of gold in the New World fuelled a frenzy of exploration and conquest with a steady stream of Spanish vessels criss-crossing the Atlantic, with gold from Peru travelling to Portobello, Panama, in mule trains and by boat to Veracruz, Mexico, and on to Spain. Settlers, explorers and priests came sailing from the Old World to the new. Meanwhile, other European powers grew resentful. Holland, France and England were also seafaring nations looking for trade routes and lands to exploit. In England, Queen Elizabeth I built a navy with the aim of breaking up the Spanish monopoly. 

Francis Drake decided on his first major independent enterprise. He planned an attack on the Isthmus of Panama, known to the Spanish as Tierra Firme and to the English as the Spanish Main. This was the point at which the silver and gold treasure of Peru had to be landed and carried overland to the Caribbean Sea, where galleons from Spain would pick it up at the town of Nombre de Dios. 
Drake left Plymouth on 24 May 1572, with a crew of 73 men in two small vessels, the Pascha (70 tons) and the Swan (25 tons), to capture Nombre de Dios. His first raid was late in July 1572. Drake and his men captured the town and its treasure. When his men saw that Drake was wounded they insisted on withdrawing to save his life and abandoned the treasure. Drake stayed in the area for almost a year, raiding Spanish shipping and attempting to capture a treasure shipment.After the English Navy defeated the Spanish Armada in 1588 and set off to claim America, no Spanish colony was  safe.
Pirates Henry  (Cow Eyes)  Morgan ,  and Sir Francis Drake certainly spread their unwelcome attentions on both coastlines – particularly unwelcome to the Spanish - as evidenced by landmarks and historical documents throughout the Americas. Drake Bay on the southern Pacific coast was named after the famous 16th century pirate, and the Isla del Coco – or Cocos Island – is said to be a hiding spot for pirate treasures, the surrounding waters a resting place for many ships. 
Queen Elizabeth had hired Morgan, Drake and other experienced sailors as “corsairs” to attack Spanish assets in the new world. Acting as agents for the English crown, they brought terror to Spanish vessels and colonies. Because of England’s anti-Catholic beliefs at the time, richly furnished churches were favoured targets for pirates. Forts still standing in Cuba and South America are today’s tourist attractions but in the 16th century they were protection against British terrorists.

Surprisingly, pirate companies did sometimes operate under gentlemen’s codes. Pirate captains faced mutinies and lost their crews if the men were mistreated or cheated. Pirate ships carried “surgeons” who were not medical doctors but were trained in amputations, which explains  peg legs and hooks for arms.
Costa Rica faced several invasions by pirates, and Cocos Island was their sanctuary for several years. With fresh water, abundant timber and plants and animals, they could live there comfortably while raiding coastal cities. Stories of pirate treasure on the island and sunken ships offshore continue to intrigue. The Caribbean side of Costa Rica saw several pirate incursions in the 1600s. In the 1640s, a pirate army of 600 men led by Bartholomew Mansfield headed for Cartago, then capital of Costa Rica.
Later, a Caribbean uprising by plundering buccaneers was led by men like  Blackbeard, and these pirates pillaged until they met defeat by arms and economics. Pirates no longer lurk in Costa Rican waters, but their stories, their sunken ships and their treasure live on in the public imagination, much like the Bushrangers in Australia.

Back in the Present…

In this 21st century in the seas off Somalia, the Straits and Malacca, and the Bay of Bengal,  heavily armed and trained hijackers capture cargo ships, passengers and crews and hold them to ransom, The closest to piracy I witness in Costa Rica is the ruthless behaviour of truck drivers on the road to Puerto Limon. They take no prisoners.

Traffic rushes down impossibly high hillsides curtained in jungle and mist. Engines scream at top speed up the same hillsides. As it flashes by, your knuckles whiten with the occasional flicker of a passing speed-blurred giant truck or car. Your survival depends of how hard you concentrate on the tail-lights of the hurtling Mack a few inches from your front bumper and the one a few inches from your rear,,. its siren screaming  and  lights flashing. This two-lane highway is the only transport link from the port of Limon to San Jose. Dante would’ve been proud of it. There are so many trucks there must be a secret breeding ground for them in the jungle, some fantastic chromiumed crèche pumping out squealing 16-wheelers by the hundred.

 The nose-to-nose jam of rusting car bodies along each side of the road is overwhelming, the quantity surely coming close to outnumbering the cars on the road which do work. Vehicles are obviously written off at a frightening rate, yet on our stomach-churning journey we don’t see a single accident, or piles of bones beside the stripped wrecks. We were stuck in an interminable traffic jam caused by a three-man roadwork crew who simply stopped the traffic dead – all of it - and ignored it while they spread gravel in a layover. Much of the wealth of Costa Rica is using this road at any given moment and traffic jams must cost millions.

Further down toward the sea, the land levels out and the ‘Sodas’ appear. Villagers throw up temporary – well OK, permanent – lean-to’s on the roadside selling Coke, Pepsi, sugar snacks, beer, coconut oil and of course the staple ‘rice and beans’. No one was stopped at a ‘Soda’, but at a few gas stations trucks gathered  to gossip and  plan their next assault  on the traffic.

Near the port of Limon walls of containers line the same two-lane highway; it is the only road between the major port and the capital San Jose. Its scale in places reminds you of the Great Wall of China. What goes on behind these walls is anyone’s guess but surely it  has something to do with truck fertility rites.

Wages of  Fear, Costa Rica style

Further south of the Caribbean Coast is the small coastal tourist village of Puerto Viejo, laid back, cool and undeveloped, with a plethora of (semi)organized, on-going American diversions. There’s not a lot of Costa Rican culture on display, but there are dozens of American kids running massage places, workshops on food fermentation and beekeeping, surf comps, little theatre groups, ginger-beer brewing classes, community gardens, town baseball teams, yoga classes, and an annual arts festival that last year featured a play by kindergarten kids, nude self-portraits, and a belly dancing troupe. All this is fun, but Costa Rican it ain’t. On the other hand, maybe it is. 

The glassless windows of our rented cottage is like being walled in by Rousseau paintings; the colours are exactly the same. Each ‘window’ looks into a fascinating emerald wall of jungle.

Unseen Howler Monkeys growl and hoot all night - or could that have been Tarzan, lost and calling for Jane? Who knows what’s out there in the foetid dampness? I sure don’t. All I can do is imagine or look at promotional photos on the Internet. It knocks me out, but I don’t feel a part of it. The Jaguar Rescue organisation is just up the road (near the Carib-Bean organic coffee  shop (massages $US45 an hour); its logo is a Monkey ! )

Which is the Rousseau painting and which is real life?

We’ve got free access to kilometres of picture postcard Caribbean coastline, lined with palms, no beachfront development at all; horseback riding in the mountains or on the beach; surfing, snorkelling, excellent fishing and more than enough night spots for those who want to party or take chances on the food. OK, it’s pretty spectacular... but there’s something missing : any Costa Rican character.
  Outback  Jack’s   
Here’s a bar right out of the northern Western Australian desert, inspired by the Daly Waters Hotel  in the Northern Territory  and festooned with painted car junk, curiosities, tourist souvenirs (empty bottles to  you) and jury-rigged refrigeration machinery. Jack is a snaggle-toothed character whose style the American tourists love. His bar is for sale and he knows his market – he’s no fool, he’ll do well. He acts like an eccentric beachcomber; and at least the eccentric part  is  genuine.
Jack's  joint
His beer glasses are clearly used by the local cops for fingerprinting practice – they’re covered in them. But Jack mixes a mean Margarita and personally tastes each one for quality. He serves them in Mason jars with mug handles. He has a faithful clientele. Jack is a refugee from everywhere, including Australia, and tells colourful stories of the mafia, smuggling, border scrapes, failed businesses and self-destructive tourists. He’s in love with his own legend, but who cares?  His wife Penelope (“Don’t call me Penny – the Costa Ricans think it means ‘penis’.”) grins knowingly. They’re a good pair. He’s in his early 60s and looks 80. He has a lot of fun with his gullible customers. 
After a few relaxing days in Puerto Viejo, squinting into the jungle across from the beach and  eating and drinking anything we want, we find a restaurant which has Lobster. Everyone including Jack told us there is no Lobster in town – it’s overfished, there’s none left. We should have listened more carefully, but eventually we find a place with Lobster and greedily eat half a one-kilo beauty each.
Next morning, early to avoid traffic jams and roadworks (we are wrong), we set off at top speed to return to San Jose. we have a driver who laughs  at death  in  all its forms. I begin to plan the plot of a comic book featuring this guy’s adventures. I close my eyes. The world whirls. I hum a hymn under my breath. I imagine flying Business Class on Singapore Airlines but it doesn’t work. I can’t forget where I am, I am surrounded by Pirates. My bowels loosen with fear. 
Our Australian drivers must have learned to drive on a roller coaster…Costa Rican truck drivers are chosen for their suicidal bravado on the narrow mountain road to San Jose but our driver doesn't fear death in any form - including  being  strangled  by  his   passenger.

A  Disturbed  Passage
I depart San Jose without eating anything for three days. I have been given the gift of food poisoning of the most virulent kind. As I write this nine days later, a French overcast  sky   slides over my brain like a Tupperware lid and the rumbling and cramping in my lower belly continues. I’ll spare you the details, but the only diagnosis which fits all the gruesome symptoms is that my bowels have been deliberately infected by the spores of Alien Pirates (as in Alien : Covenant, currently screening) etc. My food has been intergalactically modified, plundered of all its health attributes and poisoned…or maybe the lobster had been left unrefrigerated.
Some kind of  pirate is robbing us of our precious bodily fluids and they are being forcibly ejected from our nether orifices, leaving us weakened and exhausted. Clearly, I’m a little feverish. Piracy continues to flourish on the Caribbean Coast of  Costa Rica. Pass the Imodium. I’ll never be able to look  Johnny Depp in the  face  again .