By Bret Gilliam, September 14, 2010
The diving experience is made up of a number of things. Just getting there at times involves days of transit via airplanes (some of dubious provenance), overnights in bizarre accommodations definitely not in the Travel & Leisure Top Ten, equally questionable local taxis or buses, and occasionally watercraft making the last connection that evokes memories of a distant past era that makes the African Queen with Bogie at the helm look cutting edge. But having once arrived at your destination, I always try to soak up as much of the local culture as I can to complement the diving. “Local culture” can vary widely… from the primitive villages of the Solomons or lost-in-time places like the Banda Islands in Indonesia to camel-tending nomadic tribal fire circles in the Sinai. In such situations, you tend to expect the “unexpected”. But some of my most memorable times have occurred in quasi-civilized waypoints while still en route to the boonies.
Take Costa Rica. I love Costa Rica… reasonably civilized with normal air flights, phones that mostly work, short flying distance from the U.S., great food, nice ancient culture, beaches, rain forests, mountains, wonderful craftsmen and artists, and a generally affable Spanish-speaking population that also does a good job of indulging foreigners with English, if necessary. But in the early 1990s, getting around the woeful road system if you were trying to get to Puntarenas or Guanacaste or down the Caribbean coast was an exercise in frustration of biblical proportions. Seemingly endless periods trapped in uncomfortable vehicles with no air conditioning and barely any suspension left you feeling every pothole and usually every raindrop that sneaked in through the roof.
In early 1995 I was hired as a consultant for a new resort located in Costa Rica but only a few miles from the Panamanian border all the way south, basically smack dab in the middle of nowhere. My longtime assistant Cathryn Castle (now editor at Dive Training magazine since 1997) came along to help. Our local agent was to pick us up at the San Jose airport but we were diverted to Panama and couldn’t land due to weather. With no phone number to call him and a total nightmare of ineptness getting in and out of Panama, we finally arrived back in San Jose again about a day and a half late and with only a fleeting expectation that someone might meet us. But exiting customs, there he was with a handheld sign with my name on it and a warm smile. About 12 hours later in his “car”, he dropped us off at the resort, still under construction, nearly back in Panama again after a road tip that seemed to have lasted longer than a flight to Singapore… in the luggage hold.
We spent four days assessing the snorkeling, diving, hiking, local wild life, making suggestions for guest rooms, pool design, and other hospitality services and were picked up again for another rambling safari back to San Jose that dropped us off in a rather seedy guest house just off the main square about 10:00PM that evening. Covered in dust, sweat, and road grime, we grabbed a quick shower and went in search of something to eat. A quick walk brought us to San Jose’s equivalent of Central Park and a twinkling neon sign with a palm tree beckoned us to the Key Largo Bar & Grill. It sounded like just what we needed after a long day with nothing to eat but a couple of bananas. We asked the guy at the door if we could still get served that late and gave us a slightly bemused smile and assured us that service was indeed still going strong.
The place was in an old antique “great house” three-story mansion and positively grand with a beautiful mahogany interior, graceful balconies, a garden terrace for dining, and a huge U-shaped bar that was packed with enthusiastic patrons. A thumping salsa band provided an energetic beat and we settled in to peruse the menu. Almost immediately, Cathryn (who bears a striking resemblance to actress Meg Ryan) began to attract attention. In the space of about ten minutes, no less than a dozen men came over to introduce themselves and ask her if the could buy her a drink. I figured that they were obviously movie fans of Sleepless in Seattle or When Harry Met Sally and excused their non-stop intrusions. But after half the bar had dropped in on us before the soup course was over, I finally decided that something needed to be done to stop the unwanted attention.
I told Cathryn that I’d speak to our waiter and said I’d be right back. As I walked through the bar to find Mauricio, I couldn’t help noticing for the first time that there seemed to be a particular “atmosphere” to the establishment that was, shall we say, not exactly the International House of Pancakes. A quick chat with Mauricio confirmed that I had unwittingly chosen San Jose’s premier house of ill repute for our dining that evening. He diplomatically explained that since I was having dinner, the other patrons naturally assumed that I was finished with the Meg Ryan “look-alike” and that she might be available for another “date”. A quick perusal of the bar revealed that it was also filled with ladies looking very much like Madonna, Julia Roberts, Christie Brinkley, Whitney Houston, Goldie Hawn, and even a very passable Sophia Loren. At least were no Liza Minellis or Bette Midlers or I’d have known that I’d accidentally also “parked my car on the wrong side of the street”. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as Jerry Seinfeld would say.
I made my way back to our table, making eye contact with the closest thing to Cindi Crawford that I’d likely ever meet, as Cathryn fended off a few more suitors. I explained the situation and she found it hilarious. But the food was good and music even better and we went on to enjoy a great evening.
Only three years later, I was back in San Jose. This time I was traveling with real actress/super model Lauren Hutton on our way for nearly a month at Cocos Island and our flight was delayed in arriving until almost midnight. We finally got checked into the downtown Holiday Inn… right on the park… and right across from the Key Largo Bar & Grill. The restaurant was closed at the hotel and five of us decided to head over to the Key Largo knowing that it was the only place nearby to grab a bite that late. We decided not to tell Lauren about its primary business model and asked for a distant table outside hoping to be able to eat in seclusion. Wrong!
Once we ordered, Lauren was immediately up to explore and quickly developed a conga line of “fans” all wanting to “meet” her. She was impressed that she had so many eager followers in Costa Rica. My publishing partner, Fred Garth, felt obliged to reveal that her growing entourage might well be fans… but they thought that she was a professional “look-alike” who was not there to make a movie or pose for a magazine cover. This caught her by surprise and she initially didn’t believe that Fred was giving her the straight story. He dutifully pointed out Uma Thurman and Naomi Campbell at the bar while Dolly Parton was doing a pretty fair limbo on the main dance floor.
This didn’t faze Lauren who professed that no one could actually mistake the “real” Lauren Hutton for an impostor. One of our divers suggested that she take a stroll around the place and see what she could bring for a “price”… noting dryly that he was willing to wager that the ceiling would be realized at about $50. This challenge was more than Lauren could stand and she countered with a bet that she could get a bid of at least $500 or she’d buy dinner for all of us.
To make an obvious and blatantly offensive pun, the gauntlet had been laid. We ordered another round of drinks and Lauren disappeared into the Costa Rican equivalent of a high-end Sotheby’s auction. We were nursing our third round of mojitos when she came back and slumped into her chair. Although she never revealed the “high bid”, she did buy dinner. At least she didn’t go upstairs with the high bidder…
The next day we checked out of the Holiday Inn and headed to Puntarenas to join the Sea Hunter for the long ride out to Cocos Island. Lauren tends to like to immerse herself in local culture wherever she goes. She really had no Spanish skills at all, but she was always willing to give it a shot. Once we were aboard the Sea Hunter passing a prominent headland at sunset, she asked the name of the place. Fred Garth told her it was called Punta Maria. Days later when we were off the west end of Cocos Island, she again wanted to know the name of that part of the island. This time Fred told her that it was unnamed.
“Aha, then we’ll name it after me. How about we call it Puta Lauren?”
Everyone immediately agreed that would be a perfect name. And Puta Lauren it has remained.
Unfortunately, she got the nuance of Spanish a little wrong. The word “Punta” means, “point”. The word “Puta,” which she had prefaced her name with, means, “whore”. So Puta Lauren is remembered fondly.
But our favorite Spanish lesson came between trips when we killed a few days on the mainland by visiting the Costa Rican rain forest in the high mountain region known as Monte Verde. We grabbed a local taxi right out of Romancing the Stone to bounce over ill-tended roads for about six hours before arriving at the small village that serves as the business and cultural center of the region. We shook the dust off and strolled into the first bar we saw to toss down a few beers. The local currency in Costa Rica is known as “colones” and Lauren had neglected to get a supply before we left San Jose. So she ambles up to this local teenage kid behind the counter. She’s wearing a sweat-soaked halter-top and a pair of super short cut-off jeans. She’s going to buy a round of drinks.
She slaps a $100 bill on the counter and asks the kid if he can get her some beer and “cojones”. The guy couldn’t believe his luck as he stared at the seductive beauty in front of him.
“Si, senorita, I can get you all the cojones you need!”
Fred intervened before Lauren caused a major destabilization to the local currency. We got our beer, the kid had his fantasy, and Lauren picked up a bit more Spanish.
So you see, it’s the cultural experience that often supersedes the diving. Whether lost in translation or simply lost in a bar of attractive “look alikes” at midnight in San Jose, it’s all deeply enriching. Hasta la vista, amigos!