Our lawyer is here today, and we’ve been going over the points of our countersuit against the neighbors. It’s hard to understand everything she says because it’s all in Spanish, but I get most of it. Once in awhile there is a word—in this case, intransigente—I don’t. I try to memorize it as she zips along as though I were a native speaker.
Intransigente, intransigente, I repeat silently, trying not to forget. Look it up later, I tell myself, because the conversation is getting away from me; I let go and move on. I use everything in my interpretive toolbox to reach out, to absorb all of what she is saying. I look at her body language and her eyes. I watch her mouth and, of course, the hands. It is always the hands that are so expressive here in Costa Rica.
I cook breakfast for her while she spits bullets of Spanish across the room in my direction, telling me what she did at the courthouse yesterday. It is important, but I am caught between being polite and paying attention. If I cook, I have my back to her and can’t use all my senses to interpret. If I face her, the breakfast burns.
After she gulps down the scrambled eggs, we go outside onto our veranda where she brings out her coffee and the maps and papers we need to sign. The overhead fan blows gently, ruffling them.
As she takes a sip of coffee, I look out over the verdant clearing in the jungle the locals call a potrero. It is a place I love to walk, alive with wildlife of the snake and lizard variety. The great black hawk sits in her favorite tree this morning and waits for her breakfast to present itself. On the surface everything is the way it has always been, but it is different now. This is where the battle is centered.
The consequences of the lawsuit filed against us would be extreme. Two of our neighbors have formed an alliance to usurp part or, preferably, all of our property for development purposes. It appears they crafted a plan to engage us in a complicated legal battle they think they will win.
It doesn’t matter what their scheme is; it is simply the vector, the means to the end. If they had not tried this method they would have tried another, and there is no turning back. Like two jousters, we hurl threats and practiced blows with our legal lances, hoping to maim the other so they will retreat. The stakes are high.
This is an old and familiar showdown for me, and one that has pursued me my whole life: development versus conservation. The two places in this world I have loved the most have suffered from this same conflict.
I grew up in Central Oregon on a working cattle ranch at the base of the Three Sisters Mountains—Faith, Hope and Charity. I had the kind of freedom that children these days rarely dream of. I was gone almost every morning on my horse and returned only for supper in the evening. I nosed around the foothills of those mountains and knew them like any city kid knows his neighborhood.
Fifty years later, that same ranch is a gated community. I find it ironic that the place where I found the greatest physical freedom as a child is now walled off from the public and the countryside itself. There is a nine-hole golf course out in our old back pasture where the horses once liked to stand in the shade and eat thistles.
My parents had unbelievable pressures put on them when the developers descended, but, being pragmatic people, they moved on with their lives after they sold that ranch 35 years ago. I learned from them a certain flexibility, and when I grew up I looked for my own wild places in the world.
My husband and I came to Costa Rica from Oregon 20 years ago, and I suppose I should not be surprised about what is happening to us now. Just like Central Oregon of the 1950s, no one was much interested in this area on the Caribbean coast when we first came in the late 1980s.
“Why do you want to live there with all those black people and all that crime?” people from the West Coast used to ask us. It didn’t bother us if they felt that way; perhaps we’d be able to live in peace and quiet with our backyard howler monkeys, birds and iguanas, at least for a while. We never extolled the extraordinary beauty of this place to anyone. And, for a long time only the hardiest of travelers made it this far down the road.
The road getting here in those days was just a goat track, slick and difficult to maneuver. It was the end-of-the-road just before the country bumps into Panama. Afro-Caribbean people have lived in this area for generations. The earliest passed along the coast hunting turtle—leatherbacks and hawksbill—in the late 1800s. Many settled here and eventually called it home. Most of the turtles are gone now, and the blacks are being diluted out into the population of foreigners and Spanish who flooded into the area recently. Endangered species.
Several years ago the government offered to pave the road from Puerto Viejo to Manzanillo. Many were against it, but most people thought it would make their lives better. The debate split some families down the center. Those of us who had lived through it before tried to explain about development and tourism, what that does to an area and the people who live there. They just saw the promise of money, and who can blame them?
Eventually, the bait was too tantalizing and the road was paved in 2001, a distance of about 12 miles. Ever since, there has been an increasing flood of tourists and everything that accompanies them: drugs and their associated crimes of prostitution and robbery, pollution from lack of planning, and escalating land values. Many people who grew up here can no longer afford to buy property, just as I can no longer afford the area where I grew up.
So we are waging war with our neighbors. In the greater scheme of things it doesn’t matter what happens with the lawsuit or the countersuit. The battle was really lost the moment the pavement reached its final destination in Manzanillo. The future is coming hard. It is at our front steps, knocking at the door relentlessly. It feels like an unwanted visitor who arrives when you are in the middle of some pleasant activity with your family and do not wish to be disturbed. Should we be polite and open the door? Or ignore them, and make the neighbors talk about our antisocial ways?
Because of my age, I will never see this place 50 years from now, but I don’t think it will take long before there are condos of the Mexican Riviera type, high-rise hotels, souvenir shops and car rental agencies infesting this strip of land. There will undoubtedly be a McDonald’s or a Burger King on any corner in Puerto Viejo. And I imagine one day soon our handcrafted house will be bulldozed to make way for a fancy hotel, just as happened with my family home in Central Oregon 35 years ago. Perhaps a mini-mall.
Right now we are fighting to retain what we have. Our lawyer feels confident in our case. She says she has found papers proving fraud and collusion. She is going to file a civil case against those involved—our neighbors, one black and one Spanish. These are the papers we are signing this morning. She will take them to the judge and have him review the maps, “so he really understands the case,” she says. I don’t know what that means exactly. It could mean she is going to toque su pie and give him some money, or it could mean just what she says. It is hard to know how it all works.
She leaves after giving me a small kiss on the cheek. I will smell her perfume for many hours afterward. I wish her a safe journey and luck with the judge. Then I turn to my Ultralingua Spanish-English dictionary on my computer. Intransigente: uncompromising, intransigent—of course. Sometimes it is just the pronunciation in Spanish that trips me up.
She was referring to our neighbors in their suit filed against us. I, however, think it is better suited to the conflict as a whole: unyielding, and irrecoverable.
Sarah Morgan is a freelance writer and has written for Escape From America and Real Travel Adventures. She is working on a memoir of her years on the Caribbean coast of Costa Rica.