One morning I watched a dog eat a dead iguana in the road. We all did—it was our morning entertainment. The crew at Sarita’s Bakery sat outside and watched the mangy dog circle the carcass, ripping it apart. After it was done it rolled in its kill and laid down to sleep in the sun. When a car drove up, the driver had to swerve around because the dog was too lazy to move.
“Look at that dog. He’s not even moving,” Surfer Scotty said.
“Yeah,” I said.
“It’s going to be a hot one today,” Salty Dog Rodney said.
“Sure is,” I said. It always was hot so I don’t know why we bothered saying it every day, but we did.
I liked the streets when it was early, sitting outside Sarita’s when she first opened, watching the other shopkeepers hosing down the sidewalks in front of their stores, a deliveryman with bread steaming from the basket of his bicycle. Sleepy Nicaraguan and Dominican workers walked up the road toward the nice houses in white uniforms, their feet still hurting from the day before but smiling and thanking God just the same.
Sarita’s Café was the center of the Tamarindo gossip exchange. Gossip, or “el chisme” in Spanish, was the central activity in town, the only currency shared by all. It was so prevalent that locals referred to our town as TamaRumor. We had plenty to talk about—there’s nothing more dynamic than a small town in the tropics. In fact, the smaller the town, the more complex the relationships, the more the vines grow intertwined.
Information in Tama spread strictly by word of mouth. There was no local TV coverage, no local radio, no town hall I could see, no town meetings, and no community bulletin board. There was one monthly rag that covered local events and posted a surf report, called…the TamaRumor. The only daily newspapers were in San Jose, so far away, both in distance and culture, that it was like reading about another country.
It was easier to get our world news from Sarita’s, and I liked it there. Sarita gave me a local discount so coffee was half price, only 400 Colones. To further entice me into her establishment she kept a bottle of Baileys behind the counter just for me. Where else in the world do proprietors in a café gladly contribute to your 7:00 a.m. alcohol consumption?
For a lot of us, Sarita’s was our town center, our water cooler since we didn’t have real jobs. There were five seats out front so the regulars joined me in our stakeout of the dirt road.
“Oh no, here comes Big Teeth,” Rodney said.
“Ahhh shit, I can’t stand this guy,” Sarita said. “He’s so rude.”
“What’s his real name again? Mike? Carl?” I asked.
“Who the fuck knows? Big Teeth,” Sarita said. Big Teeth pulled up on his motorcycle in a cloud of dust, his German Shepherd running closely behind. He dismounted, took off his helmet, and started up the steps to the café. The dog followed, barking.
“Jesus, he’s got some nasty choppers,” Surfer Scotty said. “Those things could really do some damage if they got a hold of you.”
“Yeah, and the dog does, too,” I said.
Big Teeth ordered coffee and came outside. The rest of us just sat there and didn’t say much. He hiked his khakis up to his chest, made some racist comments, and offended a passing girl before getting on his bike and driving away with the dog.
“He’s always complaining about my muffins and my prices,” Sarita said, smoking a cigarette.
“I like your muffins,” Scotty said.
“We like your muffins, too” Rodney said.
“What about my prices?”
“I like your muffins a whole lot more than your prices,” I said. She pretended to pour coffee on my head.
Sarita was from Rhode Island, a fiery redhead with the sass to match. Her real name was Sarah, but there were so many Sarah’s in town that I think she opened a café just to differentiate.It was nice to have a fellow east coast ball-buster in town. Every morning I looked forward to being lambasted with insults the moment I walked through her door.
Where I’m from everyone talks shit, whether it’s puff-chested Italian bravado, mellifluous banter from the hood, or biting Jewish sarcasm. If your friends weren’t talking shit to you then you knew there was a problem. Growing up in New Haven was like being at the Olympic Training Center of shit talking, and I was a prodigy fast-tracked for the gold.
That’s why being a writer is my dream job—I get to talk shit for a living in a semi-socially-acceptable forum where I won’t get beat up or thrown in jail. I can make people laugh and hopefully get paid for it one day. What are the alternatives for me? A used car salesman? A politician? My God, those are some horribly scummy vocations. No, I think I’ll stick to writing.
Sarita had a first-class yapper on her, too; not quite on my level, but then again, who is? East coast shit talking isn’t meant to be hurtful at all—quite the opposite; we understood that the frequency and viciousness of the verbal attacks actually corresponded with how much we cared for each other. So a typical east coast shit talking session at Sarita’s might have sounded like this (with translation for the rest of you schleps):
I’d walk in.
“Ohhhhh nooooo! There goes my morning,” Sarita would say. (Good morning, kind sir. I hope you are well.)
“Excuse me, I must be in the wrong place. I was looking for a café and this is obviously a shit hole.” (I wish you a splendid day too, fair lass.)
“No, please, come in—you’ll fit right in then. Wow, you look like crap!” (So nice to see you. Did you sleep well?)
She’d pour the Baileys and fresh café into my cup and hand it to me, noticing the t-shirt I was wearing.
“What’s with you and yellow shirts all the time? You wear one like every day. Do you think you look good in yellow or something?” (I like your shirt. You look good in yellow.)
“Wow, that’s a LOT of lipping you’ve got going on. You’re at about an 11 and we can use you at a 4.” (Why thank you, I appreciate that.)
“Oh, whatever, Norm. Why do you even come here? No one likes you.” (Thank you for coming. We really like you.)
“Hey, if you prefer, I can leave and never come back.” (I like you too and appreciate your great café.)
“Don’t threaten ME with a good time!” (Don’t threaten me with a good time.)
That was Sarita’s favorite saying: “Don’t threaten MEwith a good time.”
And so it went, on and on every day, a witty repartee amongst eastside friend-emies suitable for framing.
Sarita had an apartment near me in Pueblo del Mar. I helped her carry supplies to and from the café because she’d injured her foot. The first time I saw her apartment I was absolutely certain she was running a meth lab. White powder snow-flaked the countertops and it was approximately 187 degrees, even though the ceiling fans were working overtime. Everywhere I looked there were bins, tubes, and beakers containing spices, icing, and white powders of mysterious origin. I estimated the street value of her apartment to be $600,000 U.S. dollars, but she claimed it was just where she did all of her baking. Yeah, right.
She lived there with Jason, her gringo boyfriend. He was a personal chef who didn’t have much work so he sat around the apartment smoking weed and watching Patriots games on his laptop all day. If I had to pinpoint his personal philosophy on life, I’d say that Jason was a follower of “I-Don’t-Give-A-Fuckism.” I respected him for that. We’d sit in front of the café in the afternoons, when he was watching the place for Sarita, and talk about old school punk bands, end-of-the-world conspiracy theories, and whether you’d rather get hit in the face with a lead pipe or a baseball bat—important stuff like that. I liked Jason. He looked a little rough around the edges, and suffered from crippling social anxiety that kept him from hanging out in public a lot, so we had more in common than he might have guessed.
Jason and Sarita were always on-again, off-again. Sarita would need someone to talk to at the café, or knock on my door to say hi. It’s useless giving relationship advice to anyone, but I did root for them so I just said “yup” and “I hear you” and shook my head in agreement every 14 seconds, secretly wishing she’d brought over some of her famous meth cinnamon rolls. I liked them both but I wanted nothing more than to stay out of their relationship woes, though the human stain always seems to follow me.
Running a business in Tamarindo was a daunting task. Sarita had bills to pay and already had to work twenty hours a day trying to hold it all together. I don’t know how she did it, but it didn’t look like fun. She hired my neighbor’s daughter to help, but that just created another salary to pay. Sarita was always exhausted and stressed, but to her credit she kept up her usual chipper, crappy attitude with us.
When tourists came into the café, us locals tried to put on a good show and watch what we were saying. The café wasn’t like your neighborhood Starbucks back in the States. Every morning, tourists poked their well-shampooed and conditioned heads inside and asked for a vente caramel Macchiato or inquired if she served Frappachinos. No matter what they ordered we all just pointed to the big metal coffee pot sitting on the counter. We had coffee or more coffee—drink it and don’t complain.
I think I speak for everyone who thinks a “barista” is just a dude who makes coffee when I say that the whole Starbucks thing has gotten a little out of control. It’s to the point that the corporate coffee culture is gentrifying the last place I’d ever expect—the hood.
Before I left Sacramento, I was sitting in a Starbucks one afternoon on Stockton Blvd. For those of you who aren’t familiar with that particular street, it rivals any avenue ‘cross the country named “Martin Luther King Jr.” or “John F. Kennedy” as ghetto-fabulous. So I was just sitting there, chilling, and this thug walks in with a gangsta limp—gold teeth, hoodie, jeans sagging. I figured he was there to rob the place, which was perfectly fine with me, but instead he walked right past the line of customers up to the register, leaned his tattooed forearms on the counter and said:
“Yeah, like, ya know what I mean, yo yo—hook me up with some of dat…grande triple shot half-whip vanilla soy decaf mocha. Please.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. I wanted to shake him by his Sean Jean shirt and scream, “Really G?! Come onnnnnn, boo boo, you gonna go out like THAT?! That’s not a coffee you just ordered—that’s a Prince song!”
Well, I can promise you that you wouldn’t find any of that same opulence, pretension, or insect-free cleanliness at Sarita’s! But alas, she did need to cater to the tourists because us deadbeat locals weren’t enough to make a living off. So we helped her out any way we could, even inviting them to sit down with us. You know me by now, I HEART Tourists. I was more than happy to answer any questions they might have…about sharks.
The surf posers came right off the plane with legs so white they were unsuitable for public viewing, wearing Bob Marley t-shirts they’d just bought at Target, holding short boards they could never ride. They’d come into Sarita’s for a quick shot of java on their way to the beach. Once they saw Surfer Scotty, Salty Dog Rodney, and me sitting outside, they’d figure it was a good time to ask some locals a few of questions. Which beach was best for surfing? When was high tide? What was a good place to buy a new rash guard? But most of all, they wanted to know about sharks before they jumped into the ocean.
“So, fellas, are there any sharks in the water down here? I mean, is it safe?”
“Oh yeah, perfectly safe. Nothing ever happens,” I’d say.
“For sure, you’re fine in the water. No worries,” Surfer Scotty said.
“Yup, 100%,” I said.
“110%!” Scotty chimed in.
“Whewww! Okay, cool. I was a little worried because I’ve never been in the Pacific before and before I left it was Shark Week on the Discovery Channel.”
“Well…except for that guy last summer,” I said. “Right, Scotty, remember him?”
“Oh yeah, of course. Except for the guy.”
“Guy? Guy?! What guy? What happened? What happened last summer with the guy?”
“No one knows for sure,” I said. “He was a local, a good surfer, too, out at Playa Grande with a couple of his friends. He got bitten by a shark and died. Does that about cover it, Scotty?”
“Yeah, but some say it was a crocodile. Not sure. But something definitely bit him on the leg and he died.”
“You’re not kidding?” the tourist said, looking over his shoulder to make sure his better half wasn’t listening. “We Googled it but nothing like that came up. Please don’t tell my wife—she wanted to go to Amish country, instead.”
“Ohhh, you have to be careful with those Amish, too,” I said. “They’re sneaky bastards once they get ahold of you.”
“But, to be fair, he bled to death because they took forever getting him to the hospital,” Scotty said. “He was only 200 meters away from the medical clinic but instead of putting him on a boat across the estuary they called a taxi. It took 45 minutes to show up and then they drove around for a while.”
“Jesus, that’s awful. Please—I don’t want to hear anymore.”
“Oh yeah, so listen to this,” I said. “I heard he bled out in the back of the taxi in a gas station parking lot across the street from the clinic.”
“Big shark, too, from what his friends said. Ripped half his leg off. And once they get a taste for human blood, it’s just a matter of time,” Scotty laughed.
“Ughhhh, oh my God!”
“Hey—watch out, you’re spilling coffee on my flip flop,” I said. “But really, don’t worry about it, buddy. It’s perfectly safe and I’m sure you’ll be fine.”
“Perfectly fine! Never better!” Scotty said. “But just remember if you DO get bitten by a shark, or a crocodile, just don’t call a taxi! Hahahaha.”
“Hahahaha, good point, Scotty!”
Bob Marley suddenly lost his appetite and left half of his banana bread on his chair for the ants to swarm. He looked a little green when he left, carrying that surfboard like a tombstone, heading in the opposite direction from the beach. Odds were that they’d spend the rest of their vacation in the hotel pool.
The moment the tourists were out of earshot we started up our shit talking session right where we’d left off. Game on. From our chairs in front of Sarita’s we had a perfect vantage point to watch people in town pass by. It was a great way of ascertaining everyone’s personal business each morning, the perfect forum to judge without amnesty. It was immature, irresponsible, and borderline cruel, but hey, what can I say—you’d do it, too.
Big Chuck, the jolly personal chef, walked by. I liked Chuck—he was always really cool to talk to as he smoked bud, wading in the pool at our apartment.
“Didn’t he and Angela break up? She’s been a hot mess at the bars every night.”
“I don’t know. I think they keep making up and breaking up.”
“That’s too bad, I like Big Chuck.”
“It’s too bad for her. I heard she borrowed money from Longboard Sarah and never paid her back.”
My big-boobed alcoholic neighbor walked by, squinting against the sun. She wore the same dress as the night before and carried her high heels. She crossed the street before she passed us in a feeble attempt to evade notice.
“Hiiiiii there! How are you? Did you have a rough night?” we called out. She walked faster.
“You should have seen her at the barbecue the other night. She was sloshed! I think she hooked up with Grant.”
“Your friend Gringo Grant? I thought she was a lesbian?”
“Your mom’s a lesbian.”
“Yeah, well, your dad is a lesbian.”
“That doesn’t even make sense.” We all took a timeout, and sipped our coffee.
“Didn’t Grant’s apartment get broken into? He lives in Langosta with that tall guy who plays online poker, right?”
“Yeah, while they were away doing their border shuffle someone broke in and cleaned ‘em out: TV, laptop, nice camera—they got it all.”
“Damn, that sucks. Who was it? A Critter?”
“Well, I’m not supposed to say anything, so you didn’t hear it from me, but Grant thinks it was Tony Touch.”
“Who’s that? The crack head guy dating the waitress from Le Beach Club?”
“Yeah he works at Blue Turtle tours. I’m pretty sure he’s clean these days, or at least off that shit.”
“I heard he owned a gun.”
I didn’t say anything.
“I heard he beat her up.”
I didn’t say anything.
Lena drove by in her black Mercedes. I ducked down, but she didn’t see me anyways because she was on her cellphone. I’d been dodging her for months and had no desire to deal with her ever again.
“Look at that one. Someone told me that she married a rich old gringo years back and took him for all of he was worth. That’s how she got her money.”
“Yeah, sounds about right. Chris said she ripped him off in a real estate deal and stole five acres of his land.”
“I guess they’re going bankrupt on those condos he was building.”
“Oh, speaking of bankrupt…guess what I heard yesterday...”
It went on and on, all morning, talking about who was on a bender and who ripped someone off and, who was acting like a prick, and where everyone was trying to put their pricks.
“Man, I saw Nayla, the yoga teacher/Spanish teacher/personal chef yelling at someone outside the market yesterday. She was really losing her shit.”
“Yeah, I think she was yelling at Mack White. I heard he was sloppy drunk the other night and grabbed her ass, and she slapped him.”
“He was at Casa Crack last week—I saw him walking out of that Dominican girl’s apartment.”
“Really? And what were you doing at Casa Crack?”
Someone was going crazy. Someone else was pregnant. This one had a venereal disease, that one was broke and selling their surfboard to buy a ticket back to the States. Nothing was out of bounds and we didn’t have to worry about being politically correct. That was Sarita’s Café, the best source of information Tamarindo, excuse me—TamaRUMOR—had to offer.
“There are rumors about you, too, you know,” Sarita said to me one day.
“What? Are you serious? Like what?” I said.
“I heard that you used to be in the army, but now you’re ultra-religious and don’t even curse.”
“What the fuck? Who the hell said that?”
“You know, people talk. That’s just the word around town,” Sarita said.
“Jesus Christ, that’s crazy talk! How do these rumors even get started? People should be more responsible with what they say.”
Sarita, Rodney, and Scotty shook their heads in agreement and we looked out at the road. The stray dog rose from the dirt, yawned, and started dragging what was left of the iguana down the road.
“Sure is hot today,” Rodney said. Tamarindo, Costa Rica, surf, ski, snowboard, diving, pura vida, Central America, Nicaragua, San Juan del Sur, Amazon best seller, travel, adventure, backpack, hiking, sharks, Endless Summer, Robert August, memoir, fitness journey, globetrotting, perfect beach, paradise, spring break, expat, live abroad, work abroad, summer reading, around the world, great read, humor, laugh out loud, South of Normal, Pushups in the Prayer Room