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A Night at the Cantina

Drugrunners, gunplay, and tropical brothels all play a role in the story behind the story of Pavones, Costa Rica.

Light / Dark

ARRIVALS

June 17, 1997, Pavones, Costa Rica 

I’m watching through my camper’s open door as the first wave of a stacked-up set wraps in from the south and charges across the seascape in the dreamy glow of first light. The wave churns its way through the inside shallows then rushes over the beach in front of my campsite, which was dry a few hours ago at low water. I thought I’d be safe here from inundation, but still the wave comes up and over the sloping dirt berm separating beach from jungle. Then it sloshes under my hammock, rousing my dog, Shiner, and chasing her inland from her nest there. In its final throes now, the dying wave gurgles under my doorstep and then suddenly all earthly traces of it are gone. It’s a fierce expiration I have witnessed.

I sip my coffee and consider my options as the rest of the set, wave by wave, probes my position, each successive incursion reaching a yard or so farther inland than the one preceding it, until the last wave disappears under the Ford’s front bumper with a crackle and a hiss. The groundswell has been on the rise since I ran out of road in my travels here yesterday afternoon and is rising still, and the full-moon high tide has another hour of flood before it peaks and begins its withdrawal. In all prudence, a move to higher ground would seem to be called for. But since when in my life have I conducted myself prudently? No, I’ll ride out the rising tide, make a stand. I need not fear the water, or so I’ve been told.

I seem to be attracted to end-of-the-road places. Montauk—my home on the last left on Long Island before the lighthouse—was at road’s end. So was the Punta Lobo campground up in Baja, at which I tarried for so long last year. Back on the Caribbean side where I found my vanished old friend Christopher some three months ago—the end of the road. And here, this wilderness I have come to on the Pacific, the road likewise ends here.

So, for the second time, I have come to the bottom of coastal Central America. Perhaps my attraction to these sorts of locales lies in their feel of voluntary isolation, inaccessibility, and seclusion. The sense that one is unlikely to be disturbed by some fool asking directions to somewhere else—people do not pass through end-of-the-road places. There is also the sense that the civilized world has been tilted and given a shake, with the result that those individuals with the most tenuous grasp on what is considered normalcy have slid down the resulting figurative slope and collected at the bottom, from where there is nowhere left to go, and where are formed enclaves and subcultures rooted in extreme, and, often, I’ve found, waves will be encountered at end-of-the-road places.

Yes, there is a wave here all right. A point wave steeped both in speed and stamina, a rare combination on this planet. With a sizable, long-period south swell like the one still building out my back door, spawned by some far distant southern ocean tempest, the wave here is so fast and so long as to be almost hallucinogenic: A miracle of a wave.

“A point wave steeped in both speed and stamina, a rare combination on this planet.” As a result, the lineup can see crowds swell into the triple digits. The long walk back after a quarter mile wave keeps the masses in constant rotation. Photograph by Dick Meseroll.

Not much here, in terms of the works of modern man. There is a cantina just down the shore from my campsite in the bush, looking out upon the middle part of this long long wave, and by which charged a horseman on the beach yesterday, wild hair flying and a surf stick tucked under his arm. And there is a little fish camp farther along, around the point from the cantina. 

A long, fast, point wave. A cantina and a fish camp. Horse men carrying surfboards. The end of the road. Everything about this place suits me. I believe I’ll stay for a while.

DISCOVERIES

Back in 1974, Danny Fowlie had it all. Well, almost. Danny was a very wealthy man who had made a minor fortune in the hippie-styled latigo leather business (belts, wallets, purses) of the late 60s, allegedly plowing those profits into exponentially more lucrative ventures. Aside from his flotilla of yachts and fishing boats, his private aircraft, innumerable big boy toys and trinkets, personal extravagances, and priceless artifacts from primitive cultures worldwide, he owned, or would soon own, a multimillion dollar ranch in remote Riverside County, California, a large expanse of coastal property in southern Baja, plus Robert Vesco’s splendiferous, heavily-fortified compound just outside San Jose, Costa Rica.

Danny, toting a suitcase full of gringo green, was poised to possess the one thing he did not have but wanted most—his own private piece of paradise, a far-flung Shangri La he would benignly rule and share with an extended entourage of friends and hangers-on, plus a rotating crew of surfer-tradesmen whom he invited to come down to work and surf that included at one time or another such luminaries as Pat Curren, Mickey Muñoz, Gerry Lopez, and assorted other living legends of the surfing subculture.

Apocryphal or not, my favorite discovery story (there are a few) goes as follows: One day, while on a scouting mission by air out of the old banana port of Golfito, Danny overflew a remote tract of land at the mouth of El Golfo Dulce (The Sweet Gulf) in far southern Costa Rica near the political technicality of the Panamanian frontier. Unreachable except by boat or by horseback along the unsullied, palm-girded beach, the tableau below him appeared to be exactly what he was looking for. Riffling, clear-water rivers snaked down from the high reaches of the inland rainforest onto a fecund littoral plain that would be ideal for the growing of food crops and grazing of livestock. The inshore waters, Danny knew, given the coast’s isolated location at the mouth of the broad, unpolluted “Sweet Gulf,” would be teeming with fish.

But there was something else down below along that shoreline that day and it riveted Danny’s attention and no doubt made him blink in disbelief, heart racing. Perhaps he told his pilot to circle back and descend for a closer look. And it would be hard to imagine Danny not at some point as he stared wild-eyed out the side window of his plane, nose pressed against the glass hooting in unbridled glee as the implications of what he saw settled in.

Lying at the mouth of the Golfo Dulce caldera, the lefts hold their shape even in rare, triple-o circumstances. Matapalo—the point in the background—has regular foot options that don’t quite match Pavones perfection. Photograph by Dick Meseroll.

The wave Danny discovered that day would become legend in the surfing world: a wave that wrapped along the shore from the jagged, rocky point at the mouth of El Rio Claro in the province known as Pavones (Big Turkeys), then peeled endlessly into the bay, a rocket left slide rideable for nearly one mile on good days.

Danny Fowlie did not do anything in a small manner. Using the official and clandestine sources he’d cultivated, he bought the whole shebang, over 6,000 acres, including 15 miles of stunning Pavones waterfront. By barge and tugboat Danny hauled in heavy equipment, building materials, and generators, along with foodstuffs to sustain his crew of Costa Rican laborers and imported agronomists, veterinarians, oceanographers, and engineers until the farms and fishing boats he envisioned could start producing and make the community he foresaw self-sustaining. Danny cut roads, at first only within his kingdom, demurring on the idea of a direct connection with the outside world. Bridges soon spanned the plethora of rivers and streams descending from the inland rainforest. The deep seaside bush was cleared for a private airstrip. Schools and churches were built. Farms sprang up, overseen by experts in soil and crop management. Danny built what he dubbed “The Clubhouse” on the property known as “The Sawmill,” a three-story manse with its own world-class wave out front, a couple clicks down the coast from The Point at the mouth of El Rio Claro.

And another thing Danny built was the cantina, a private watering hole overlooking the wave at Rio Claro, where he could kick back with his surf buddies and Underground Empire sidekicks and exult in what he had created.

“You gotta picture what it was like back in the beginning,” my Long Island surf buddy Dave Ferraro told me. Dave and his brother Ben had come to Pavones in the late 1970s, at the beginning of the Fowlie era.

“We’d sit in the cantina after riding these perfect waves on this wild, stunning piece of coast,” Dave went on, grabbing my arm, so jazzed at the memory, “and here comes a couple of Danny’s vaqueros on horseback. They’d ride right up to the bar and order a brew, a cold one if the generator was working. Wide-brimmed straw sombreros, lariats, six shooters, bandoleers stuffed with bullets—picture it! I mean it was the frontier, man, almost inaccessible, an adventure just getting there with no authorities—you could do what you wanted. My friend, your imagination could go wild in a place like that…”

And all was well in Dannyland in those early years, indeed, for a full decade, until 1985, when el excremento hit el ventilador with a vengeance, and the imaginations of a lot of people went wild. And a lot of people did what they wanted.

FLASH POINTS

1985, Pavones, Costa Rica 

Danny Fowlie becomes a fugitive from United States justice, having been hounded by the DEA for years.

1985 is also the year the United Fruit Company pulls out of nearby Golfito when demands of the Cuban- and Eastern Block-backed communist labor movement make continued business untenable. With thousands of jobs lost in the area, the local communists needed another focus for their agitation, to give their idle campesino minions something to do. And by what must have appeared a miraculous coincidence, that focus suddenly lay waiting just a few miles to the south at Pavones which, due to the influx of norte surfers, real estate values are skyrocketing. With el dueño himself, Grandee Danny, on the run in Mexico, communist organizers calculate that Dannyland is up for grabs. Over the Easter holiday known as Semana Santa, several hundred squatters are bused to Pavones in a large-scale, unlawful invasion of the area. The Costa Rican government, fearing political fallout from the left, does nothing.

The squatter wars had begun. 

April 1985, Pavones 

Former Nixon financial advisor and Fowlie lieutenant Norman Leblanc orchestrates a mass desolojo (eviction) of that first mammoth wave of communist-organized squatters. Within weeks the squatters are back in full force. The Costa Rican government does nothing.

October 1988, Pavones 

The Sawmill property—Dannyland’s most valuable beachfront parcel—is overrun and taken by armed squatters. Four buildings are burned to the ground, including the Sawmill itself, which smolders for weeks. The invaders fail to take the adjoining property, which is defended by Costa Rican Carlos Lobo and norte Owen Handy. 

April 1991, Pavones 

As part of a mob advancing on norte surfer Peter Noeldecken’s property adjacent to The Point, Noeldecken’s caretaker mortally wounds campesino Hugo Vargas. In retaliation, three norte houses are burned down and an enraged throng, waving machetes and calling for blood, surrounds the cantina.

November 1992, Golfito 

The Golfito Municipal Building is overrun and occupied for four days by a gang of squatters who are unhappy with the municipality’s handling of the Pavones land dispute. The San Jose government, still fearing political fallout, does nothing about the armed takeover of a government agency. 

March 1993, Pilon 

Seventy-two-year-old American expatriate rancher Max Dalton buys a 20-acre parcel of heavily-squatted Dannyland some five miles north of the cantina. Max’s personal war with the squatters has begun. 

November 13, 1997, Pavones 

Max Dalton is mortally wounded in a Wild West-style shootout while trying to round up squatter cattle that had trespassed onto his pasture. A squatter leader is briefly detained for questioning then released, in spite of the fact that eyewitness accounts of the confrontation do not jive with the squatter version.

November 20, 1997, Washington, D.C. 

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Jesse Helms issues a strongly worded letter to Costa Rican president Jose Figueres, demanding a full investigation of the Max Dalton killing. The OIJ (Costa Rica’s equivalent to the FBI) report on the incident smacks of a cover-up. 

December 6, 1997, Washington, D.C. 

The State Department issues a travel advisory, warning U.S. citizens to avoid the Pavones area due to “roving bands of squatters…acting with impunity,” and cautioning further that evacuation of the area may be necessary if Costa Rican authorities continue to ignore the problem.

January 12, 1998, Washington, D.C. 

Senator Jesse Helms urges the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) to hold back on a proposed $70 million loan to Costa Rica, until “concrete progress” is made in resolving the Max Dalton case and the land conflict in Pavones.

A NIGHT AT THE CANTINA

January 21, 1998, Pavones, Costa Rica 

“All our lives are in danger,” the basso gringo voice says when Billy Clayton hands me the cell phone at the cantina bar at some point between dinner and my third Pilsen. Billy wishes me happy birthday and sets me up with a rum shooter on the house, but I’m too distracted by the bizarre phone greeting to thank him.

“Who is this?” I inquire.

“I’d rather not say,” the phone voice says. 

“Where are you?” 

“Nearby…but not…too near.” 

“How did you get this number?” 

“The embassy.”

There being no landline to Pavones, I left the cantina cell number with the embassy people up in San Jose in case, just in case.

All our lives are in danger? Tell me something I don’t know.

“Listen…” the lowered voice says, basso verging on profundo now. “If you want the real story about what happened to Max Dalton…follow the money.”

Wait a minute, I’m thinking. I’ve heard this dialogue before…while munching popcorn in a multiplex somewhere. I suppress a giggle. I mean, come on.

“Five point two million dollars from Union Europa for the southern zone.”

“Huh?” Follow the money. What movie was that? 

“At least a million dollars to the squatter movement.”

“Look,” I say, still racking my brain for the name of the goddamn movie. “Why don’t we get together sometime?”

But the line had gone dead.

Billy Clayton is leaning over the radio by the register, trying to catch the news from San Jose maybe. I can hear static Spanish over the bar noise. A stateside story broke today, I hear. Bill Clinton is in hot water again. Something about some salacious doings with a White House intern. Maybe Clayton cares, but I have my own intrigues to deal with here and now, plus this 21st day of January, 1998, is my goddamn Big Five-O, a potentially stress-producing benchmark, especially for someone whose life is…well, is what it is. And this week-long flat spell—a result of some midsummer doldrums in the southern ocean—isn’t helping. That call.

All our lives are in danger. My first thought is that the call was a prank. The fact that I’m investigating the shootout killing of Max Dalton for a stateside magazine is common knowledge in this remote little gobbet of paradise, and although all the norte expatriate residents knew and liked Max, a certain blackly comic slant prevails, and naturally so. It helps take the edge off the chronic uncertainty of the precarista (squatter) situation. And that deep gravelly voice could’ve been disguised—plus the goofball movie allusion. All the President’s Men. Right.

The question is, which one of my motley crew of compadres slinked off to make the call?

I scan the cantina to see who’s missing from my birthday festivities. Clay has a cell phone up at his Punta Banco hideaway and is something of a demented jokester, but he’s currently two barstools down in besotted conversation with Mountain Mike. The two are reminiscing about Clay’s terciopelo encounter a couple years ago in the bush at Altamira. I’ve heard the story before. Clay’s leg had turned plum-purple right up to his groin from the snake’s bite, and Mountain Mike, with input from an Indian bruja, had concocted a tea from roots and tree bark that counteracted the venom. Still, Clay had spent three days in a hutch in the hills, racked by convulsions, while la bruja tended him. No, wasn’t Clay.

Alex? Alex hasn’t moved from his usual corner stool, nor has he apparently missed a beat in his rap about the seraphic inter-dimensional beings he occasionally converses with, especially after a rip-roaring surf session has sufficiently heightened his metaphysical percipience. Also according to Alex’s cosmology: Flitting around the earthly firmament are vibrational traces of the consciousnesses of past dwellers of any given space, and these mind bits of “bros past” will interact with the inter-dimensional beings, as well as the consciousnesses of current space-dwellers something like that. Tonight, the unlikely victim of Alex’s ramblings is Carlos Lobo, variously described as a “one man army, crazier than a drunk Hawaiian,” “a sufferer of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder” (from the year he spent holed up in his house, defending it against continuous precarista snipering, drive-by shootings, bomb throwings, and ground assaults), and by mis compadres, Erik and Joachim—as “the straightest, most loyal man in Pavones.”

Carlos? Carlos speaks not a word of English. No, it wasn’t Carlos.

Erik and Joachim? The caller had mentioned the embassy as the source of the cantina phone number. Erik and Joachim know about my embassy visit, my intelligence sharing with the State Department, but they’re here also. I’ve just had dinner with them. Who else knows about my embassy visit? No one. No one I know of. Whoever made the call knows. Shit.

Probably not a prank. Besides, that Union Europa tidbit was too out of left field for the conversation not to have been the real thing. Union Europa. Some sort of international banking crew. Follow the money…

No, definitely not a prank. But it still could’ve been someone I know, a Pavones norte who somehow found out about my embassy visit and wanted me to have the information…but did not want to directly involve himself in the Dalton matter.

Erik and Joachim have warned me about what might happen. They suggested that if I have problems it would come from the river side of my house (which is primitive and except for the bodega, or strongroom, cannot be locked). Suggested that I sleep in my camper that is parked in the yard, and that I should keep the Browning 9mm Erik lent me within reach at all times. And of all the players actively involved in the conflict in Pavones, it’s Erik and Joachim—with their dead-of-night retaliations against the most militant of the squatters during the two-year period in the mid 90s when the land war here last reached flash point—that I should listen to in matters of personal safety.

The two camo-clad, black-faced, outnumbered 50 to 1, AK-47 and sawed-off buckshot-loaded twelve gauge brandished out their stripped, vintage Land Cruiser. The two roaring down the rutted dirt track between Pavones and Pilon, quivered-out surf racks tagging them as warrior waveriders, on moonless nights their headlights and million candlepower spot the only illumination for 20 klicks on this wild, lawless coast (no electricity back then). The two scanning the dense, ink-black bush of potential fields of fire, popping off rounds to let the Down South world know that of the remaining norte landowners who hadn’t been driven off by precarista intimidation and outright violence, someone was out there ready to rock-and-roll, maybe kick some ass of their own. Surely, these guys know where they speak. So I have taken certain precautions, although I still sleep in my upstairs sanctum overlooking El Rio Claro.

Rivermouth campsite. Overnight options run the gamut from “roughing it” to “roughing it…with a fan.” Photograph by Allan Weisbecker.

Billy Clayton sets up fresh Pilsens as Alex sidles over, wishing me a “Happy birthday, dude.” I hand the phone back to Billy, who has abandoned the radio and is now eyeing me as if to ask who the phone caller was. Had he not been the one who handed me the phone in the first place, Billy would have been my first choice as to the caller’s identity. With the possible exception of Erik and Joachim (hard to say one name without the other—a Rosencrantz and Gildenstern kind of a thing) he is the most knowledgeable of the resident nortes regarding the intrigues of the land conflict here, albeit the most skittish.

Billy’s problems started on the morning of September 16, 1991, when Costa Rican Hugo Vargas was gunned down, the first death in the squatter wars. A fired-up mob had stormed a norte surfer’s oceanfront property just south of El Rio Claro and the panic-stricken local caretaker had opened fire with a buckshot-loaded scattergun. Vargas had been killed on the spot, another campesino severely wounded: gut shot. Billy had run the gauntlet of enraged squatters in his van to rescue the caretaker and his family. Then, that night, after the cantina had been surrounded by a machete brandishing mob, Clayton fled Pavones, hiding under a tarp in the back of a truck. He would not be able to return for a year.

“Look, I was warned that a gringo was gonna get bushwhacked,” Billy told me a couple weeks ago. “It was just a matter of who. There was a hit list—Max was on it. I was on it.”

“Who warned you?” I’d wanted to know, but Billy stood up suddenly and turned scaward, shaking his head, as if he’d already said too much. The wave in front of the cantina that day was shoulder-high, and Billy and I watched a hot local kid named Meco fly by as a distant thunderhead morphed surreal and vaguely angry, spouting veined lightning in the liquid gold over the distant Osa Peninsula.

“On a certain level…” Billy had muttered, and I was not sure whether he was addressing me or simply having a thought that had inadvertently found voice “…it was the wave here that killed Max.”

So true. Without that miracle of a wave roaring in from the southern latitudes, none of this would be here. Not the settlement, the farms, the fish camp, the school, the church, the roads and bridges (such as they are), the cantina itself. Nor the people, the expat nortes who have settled here, looking for their own little piece of paradise. And, nor would the squatters, the precaristas, be here, looking for their little piece.

The cause of it all: Without these lefts, the cantina, the land battles, and the precaristas—all would be moot. Photograph by Patrick Trefz.

And, certainly, absent that wave, nor would I be here, contentedly settled in after well over a year of wandering the coast between Tijuana and the Panamanian frontier.

“Don’t worry about it, bro. Probably just another harmless whacko,” Alex says after I run down the basics of the clandestine call, although I omitted the vital detail of the caller’s mention of the embassy. “We got our share of whackos around here.”

I have to smile at that. As much as I like the guy, Alex himself has been known to evidence some peculiar thought processes, even aside from his goofball cosmology. He’ll expound at length on his deep involvement in the postmodern peace and brotherly love movement, then, with nary a connective, suddenly be discoursing on the merits of the Chinese version of the AK-47 assault rifle and the design subtleties that make it less likely to jam up in adverse bush conditions on full automatic, while the inferior Czech model will likely fail. That, or the artistry involved in constructing a pipe bomb with a unidirectional blast locus, and how to position the device to blow a big enough hole in an inch-thick bank vault to reach through to grab the goodies. All this while looking like a fugitive from the rock band Kiss.

Alex is, in fact, not a gringo but a Mexican national, although his English is flawless. A former Tijuana gang banger, Alex escaped the perils of that dead end through the surfing life: he ducked south to Pavones some five years ago, toting a hollowed-out surfboard packed with cash to buy land with and an assortment of weaponry with which to defend that land. When I pointed out the possible inconsistency implied in his commitment to pacifism while simultaneously surrounding himself with the tools of warfare, Alex frowned at my failure to see the larger picture.

“We are all bros, bro,” he replied, “but if a bro fucks with you, you got to be ready to wax his gnarly ass, post haste.”

The cantina is starting to cook as representatives of the various Pavones factions materialize from the surrounding bush and attach themselves to cervesa bottles and plastic-cup rum shooters. Julio and his cabal of precaristas-at-the-point arc outside by the seawall, Julio looking mean-drunk under his straw sombrero. He’s probably packing weaponry under his tattered guayabera. Luis, another squatter, albeit of considerably mellower disposition than Julio, and a buddy of mine—he’s nicknamed me Malo, Bad, which I admit I kind of like—wishes me feliz cumpleaños and insists on buying me another Pilsen, although by now I’ve made the move to cane juice. El Gitano (the Gypsy) is cross-eyed drunk and running amok at the bar with the 5,000 colones (about $20) I gave him this morning. Aka El Brujo (The Sorcerer), Mal Ojo (Evil Eye), El Gitano is a binge-type alcoholic, self-professed dabbler in the occult, and accused child molester. He is my main connection to the precarista movement. El Gitano, of course, is a preca himself.

Maybe half the cantina crowd tonight is of the preca persuasion, ranging in mien from mellow to not so mellow to outright nasty. The vibrational mix is edgy, with some former and even current enemies occupying adjacent barstools. The cantina, being the only watering hole within many miles, is de facto neutral territory: those who enter here have an unspoken agreement to temporarily put aside their quarrels. Still, with the nearest real police presence a good two hours away (if the road in is passable and the bridges intact), the so far lack of bloodshed is in my view something of a miracle. I can’t help but wonder how Billy Clayton—a human lightning rod in the land conflict here feels as he serves up cervezas to malvados who not so long ago waved machetes in his face and threatened to dice his gringo ass into fish chum, and who just might be sitting at the bar, his bar, planning his demise.

Alex has wandered off so I return to my table and join mis compadres, Erik and Joachim.

German expat Joachim Gerlach is a former European stunt driver, jewel thief, and all-around international scammer whose connections run the gamut from the Israeli Mossad to the most vicious criminal organization on the planet, the Bulgarian mafia. His partner, Erik Rheinhold, is a Dutchman who came to Pavones “because of an Arab with a knife….” The story gets better from there, its upshot being that the fellow’s knife was no match for Erik’s gun.

Box seats for damp theater—the rainy season view from the bar. Photograph by Patrick Trefz.

Then, a year having been spent in prison and seduced by his buddy Joachim’s idyllic accolades of the Down South surfing life, Erik arrived innocently wide-eyed and ready to unwind in the lineup, but within days found himself armed to the teeth at a dead-of-night bridge blockade, looking to bushwhack the squatters who stole Joachim’s $30,000 grubstake.

Having committed themselves to fight the precas on their own terms, Erik and Joachim’s lives got nothing but crazier from that night on. I’ve become right with the pair over the seven months since the battered old rig I call La Casita Viajera first rumbled down the dirt track to road’s end, the search for my long missing old friend, Christopher, a.k.a. Captain Zero, having come to its disorienting denouement. With respect to the Dalton matter, they have in fact become my confidants. Although I have other friends amongst the Pavones expats, it’s these guys I trust, and, I believe, vice versa. And trust is everything down here.

I tell the boys about the phone call, the cryptic missive from my Down South Deep Throat. Erik, who is the more sanguine of the two, smiles at the spy vs. spy theatricality of the affair. Joachim does not.

“Listen, my friend,” he says to me in his light German accent, “this is a box of snakes you’re dealing with.”

“The Union Europa connection is interesting,” Erik muses, ever more analytical than his volatile partner and brother-in-arms. “Maybe it’s not just the Dutch who are financing the precas.”

The fact that his countrymen, through their embassy, have been funding the squatter movement is a sore point with Erik, especially since Max’s death. He and Joachim were close to Max, had for a time acted as his bodyguards. The two argue the Union Europa point—plus the possible danger I’m subjecting myself to in my investigation—in what sounds like a conglomeration of Dutch and German. It gets heated. Finally, I request that they maybe include me in the discussion by reverting to English, since it’s the possible future of my ass they’re debating. But they simply shut up, Erik sighing. Joachim red-faced.

“If he’s careful,” Erik finally says, referring to me, blithely sipping his rum and looking around, “he’ll be alright.”

He seems bored with the conversation now.

“Hey, man, happy birthday,” Joachim says, hoisting his rum.

I return his grin. That’s right. The Big Five-O.

I look around at the cantina crowd, something out of early Peckinpah as updated by Tarantino. If I’m thinking a candle-festooned cake is about to be wheeled in, followed by this lot breaking into the birthday song, I’ve got another thing coming. If Alex’s notion that we leave vibrational traces behind us in our earthly travels is correct, surely the cantina—this end of the road, ramshackle wrinkle in space-time—would be bubbling the ether tonight. Whose phantasmal vibes are even now pulsating through the celebratory continuum of my Big Five-O, colliding with those of this oddball mix of multinational vagabonds and wild-ass locals? Who that has come before is now missing? Max is gone, of course, shot down on his own land that drizzly November day and left to die… Gone from paradise.

And how about Owen Handy, the Vietnam vet brought to Pavones in the late 1980s to teach weapons and hand-to-hand combat techniques to those nortes who hadn’t already been driven off by preca violence? Although Handy’s courage in battling the most violent of the squatters is undeniable (he’d stood his ground in full-blown firefights in which automatic weapons were used against him), the pressure of living in a guerrilla war environment had eventually driven him out.

Gone from paradise.

Or the Right Reverend Loren Pogue, the gringo expat whose fiduciary schemes ran the gamut from hilariously in-your-face land swindles to tax evasion to a conviction for vending land for use as a cocaine shipping waypoint. (His business card proclaimed him the proprietor of a local home for unwed mothers.) Perhaps best known locally for having shot an unarmed precarista in 1989, the Reverend is currently serving a 27-year sentence in a stateside prison for…well, you name it. Likewise gone, gone from paradise.

Or how about Winfred Zigan, who, like some Bob Hope From Hell, would catch and eat assorted cantina bugs (the bigger and crunchier the creepy-crawly the better) to entertain the beer guzzling expat troops on bleak and womanless post-surf-session nights? Winfred fled Pavones in 1992, not because he’d recently been shot in the head in a squatter-related tiff (a mere crease of the scalp), but from disgust when completion of the dirt track from Golfito began to afford easier access to Pavones for the multitudes Up North. In Winfred’s view, the squatter wars were a minor nuisance. That which, well, bugged him was his perception that Pavones was getting civilized—notwithstanding the fact that electricity had still not yet arrived. Winfred elected to beat cheeks farther south (yes, that natural direction of vanishment), but since the road ends here, his escape was by sea. Rumor has it that he is now the lord and master of his own otherwise uninhabited island somewhere off the coast of Panama, his battlements, no doubt, directed seaward, protecting the sanctity of his own private perfect wave. (Winfred would no doubt approve of the State Department travel advisory urging U.S. citizens to avoid the Pavones area for how it has kept the surf lineup uncluttered with those uncommitted, here-on-a-two-week-surf-vacation lightweights he so detests.)

No, not gone from paradise. On the contrary, Winfred has only dug in deeper.

How about the itinerant Aussie who was strung up here in the cantina for some now forgotten, surf-related faux pas back in the early 80s? Bound and gagged, noose tautly rising from his outstretched neck to an overhead rafter, he’d been left teetering on a chair while the boys hoisted brews and staggered around, occasionally bumping him to test his balance. Hed eventually been cut down, patted on the behind and informed he could go now.

Definitely gone from paradise is that discourteous Aussie, but what sort of jagged, get-me-the-fuck-out-of-here vibrational traces still linger?

So many gone, gone from paradise… 

Who have I forgotten? 

Of course. Danny.

Long gone from paradise is Danny Fowlie, to his long-term home up stateside at the Terminal Island Federal Penitentiary.

Danny. The Waterman Who Would Be King.

“Not much here, in terms of the works of modern man.” Despite two decades of piecemeal homesteading, a low-rise outpost aesthetic prevails. Photograph by Geoff Ragatz.

AUTHOR’S NOTE: 

In June 1998, I left Pavones, partially due to death threats resulting from my investigation into the Dalton killing. (There were personal reasons for leaving as well.) When I returned in September 2001, I found the land conflict largely resolved. There has been no further violence or land invasions. The remaining conflicts are being settled peacefully in court, invariably to the benefit of the landowners.

There have been no arrests in the matter of the killing of Max Dalton.

Although it has its problems, Costa Rica is the safest, most peaceful country I’ve ever been to. Pavones is now my home.