Tuesday, June 21, 2011

!Que Nosara!

The other day I was perusing the local library for something new to read, and wandered over to the memoir section. There amongst Barack Obama's books, was a tall, rather battered collection of paper, bound like a thesis with a plastic spine. Intrigued, I pulled it out to look at the cover.

"Never in Nosara: Anecdotes and Reminiscenses," by Maxine MacKay, 1989.

Maxine MacKay, as I was to discover, was among the handful of gringos who first bought property in Nosara. Her "anecdotes and reminiscenses" of Nosara tell the fascinating tale of the creation of the beach areas of Nosara as we know them today.

Maxine's story begins in the early 1970s with a spontaneous trip to Costa Rica after a friend tells her she has signed up to purchase a homesite in the remote Guanacaste Province after seeing an advertisement in the New York Times. From San Jose Maxine and her friend spend $200 to charter a small plane that lands on a gravel runway in the pueblo of Nosara. From there, a jeep takes them along brand new gravel roads to the beach and "up the side of the mountain to a jutting point on a rocky promontory" - Point Pelada.

Among a small cluster of makeshift thatched huts and cabins, they are treated to a sales pitch by the chief developer of the project, Alan Hutchinson, along with an engineer and a handful of others connected with the project. The sales pitch describes how two men traveled the coast in a small plane, until they happened upon the Nosara river and the mountains, completely undeveloped, with the small pueblo in the adjacent valley, and decided here was where they wanted to develop. Alan Hutchinson purchased the land from a local man, apparently a campesino who had squatted on the land long enough to lay claim to the entire area, and then Alan and his team came in by oxcart to survey the lots and mark off the sections. Building supplies came by boat and labor came from the pueblo for the new gravel roads, the small development at Playa Pelada and the few first houses in other areas.

Despite the tangled relationships and resulting tension among those first gringo settlers, so apparent even during that first sales pitch, despite the unknowns of how to build, despite some questionable legal issues, Maxine buys two lots on the spot. Perhaps it was the cocktails she was served that evening - tomato juice, rum and turtle eggs.

The rest of the memoir describes Nosara in those early days, as Maxine returned there every year for a few months at a time. Lots of titillating stories about financial scams, affairs, project politics, the advent of electricity in the project, roads and more development. One of the stories was about the lone woman in the early group of developers, the wife of the engineer, who was determined to branch out on her own and build houses. In fact, she had hired her own crew and built the first two houses on the mountain above Playa Guiones, one high up on the mountain and owned by an elderly gentleman that no one ever saw, and the other:
"...owned by two retired lady pathologists. I later saw this house and much approved its design: there were shared areas, as hallway and kitchen; but otherwise two v-shaped wings branched into separate quarters for each lady. The balcony had stretched across the front of the cantilevered home."
Yes, that's our house! Maxine was so taken with our house that she mentioned it twice more throughout the memoirs. The engineer's wife and Alan Hutchinson did not get along at all, however, a hatred that grew with time and the increasing exchange of money and land. In the end, it was rumoured that she persuaded him to provide her with several choice Nosara lots in exchange for a loan that was past due; a deal made more enticing with the help of a firearm.

Sprinkled among these crazy, funny, and heartbreaking stories of human folly and ingenuity, are beautiful descriptions of the physical environment that Maxine loved so much. She writes:
"The natural life and the human-animal exchanges are too fine for troubles about property to be consuming...life in Nosara is a natural life, a special continuance all its own, at its own particular pace. And I am delighted to have shared its quiet moments and to have heard its voice and to have felt its return of the love that those who live in Nosara feel for its rhythms and its twilight and its days--and the perpetual pounding and ebbing of its surf, the long shadows that cross its enclosing mountains just at dusk."
Maxine also captured the personal and emotional challenges of living in Nosara. She describes the first gringos as all having run here to escape someplace else, to escape troubles with love, family, money, the law. As she puts it, "many had taken the 'geographic cure' for a nagging worry at home." With that comes a requisite self-sufficiency, the development of hobbies and work to keep them busy, but also a lot of restlessness. "One has to be a very strong person," she says, "to be both creative and self-sufficient in Nosara - to be free from depressions and bondage to blank-outs." Thus those early community members were incredibly independent but also very social. Maxine describes how the entire community would gather at Baker's Beach for picnics, and to put on skits and plays. There was a lot of card playing - poker and bridge. She describes the excitement of the building of the Hotel Nosara on Punta Pelada; how the hotel became an important community center.

(the hotel a few years ago - under construction but open. To my knowledge it is not currently operating as a hotel)

(the tip of hotel today, as seen from our balcony)

Though much has changed in 40 years, I think the residents of Nosara are still faced with the dual necessities of self-sufficiency and a social network, and restlessness is still a common byproduct of the Nosara lifestyle.

Maxine provides a lengthy description of the women, in particular, of that early community. She describes how the ladies of the gringo community would meet regularly to play cards. She presumes these ladies had two major things in common: 1) a need to escape the "heavy masculinity" of Nosara, and; 2) "a fierce sense of personal independence." Continuing on her theme of how people came to Nosara to escape something else, Maxine describes how the women who gathered every Wednesday to play cards and to drink rum and whiskey, confined their conversation to "the most outward and mundane subjects" as the divulging of anything more racy was liable to make its way throughout the entire community in a very short time. Everyone had something to hide, so conversations steered clear of the personal. Noting the adherence to customs and the certain prestige of these early year round residents, Maxine describes the scene as like a British colonial station at the turn-of-the-century. "I almost expected," she writes, "men to walk in dressed in military uniform and white helmets - not the casual shorts of the husbands who came to rescue their wives about mid-afternoon." She goes on to describe the evolution of the women over time, as they grew more independent while also becoming increasingly involved in the greater community. Maxine concludes, "they were, in truth, a self-sustaining group: Mujeres Magnificas, full of stamina, courage, mutual support and extraordinary community of conscience."

In those early days, the lives of the gringo population at the beach and the lives of the ticos in the pueblo were even more separate than they are today. The road to the village was frequently flooded (not unlike today), creating a formidable geographic separation (though somehow many many ticos were still able get to the beach areas to cook, clean, build, fix, and maintain). She describes the relationship between the gringos and the ticos as respectful and easy and describes the increasing interaction over time between the communities as the project (and the pueblo) grew. She gives credit to particular early community members who became very involved in the pueblo, working to build a high school and a church, to teach English classes, and even to provide a cemetery. The cemetery was created by Gordon Mills as a gift to the entire community, gringos and ticos alike. It sits at the edge of the sea at Guiones Beach, and Gordon himself now lies there. It is a beautiful and special place.

I have no idea what happened to Maxine Mackay, whether she continued to live in Nosara for years after she wrote her memoirs, or even if she is still alive. But I am grateful she wrote down her impressions of the early days of Nosara and grateful that someone thought to bind a copy and put it in the library for me to stumble across one rainy afternoon.

The last paragraph of Maxine's memoirs reads as follows:
"Today I am happy to be alive. Good friends in Nosara, I love you dearly, all of you. I think of your happiness and your life in the rainforest. I love your great blue skies and white cushions of clouds. I become a part of your green trees and your steady, shifting rain. Buen Suerte to each of you now and always!"