Travel Essay: Costa Rica

Writing a Novel in the Jungle

Matt Ferraz

Applying for a literary residency in Costa Rica from the comfort of my home didn’t feel like a big deal. Just send some credentials, a few sample texts and an idea for a book. Having lived in Brazil all my life, I never thought of going to Central America. Still, I applied for literary residencies around the world every week, and always got rejections. This one was going to be another one for the pile, right?

Reality hit me when I got the response. A full scholarship was a big deal. And it was scary. I had to spend two months in an ecological reserve writing a novel about the endangered jaguar. It was a good opportunity to isolate from any interference from the outside world, immerse in the project and – who knows – craft a bestseller!

The plane left at one A.M., Brasilia time, and after a quick stop in Panama, I saw myself in San José. A cab took me to the local bus station. My journey was only beginning. I had to wait three hours in the station, and then it was an eight hour bus ride down to Copa Buena, where I was supposed to stay.

My first impression of San José was that it looked like my hometown, except the signs were all in Spanish. There were plenty of hospital buildings around, and the cab driver explained in English that a big chunk of the Costa Rican economy was based on Americans who traveled there to get surgery.

It was September 15, 2019, which happens to be Costa Rica Independence Day. Schools were preparing their celebrations and there were parades on the streets. I could have used those three hours to take a look around, but there were no lockers for my suitcase. Instead, I stayed at the station and tried to get some rest for the trip ahead of me.

There are two major lines from San José to Copa Buena. One is the Costanera, the coastal road, and the other one goes through the Cerro de la Muerte. Traveling across a place called Mountain of Death didn’t sound appealing, but the trip was much shorter and I felt exhausted already. The Cerro de la Muerte, I was later told, got that name a long time ago, due to people who tried to cross it on foot and died on the way. The bus ride was much safer, and the roads were constantly renewed.

Having bought my ticket before all the other passengers, I got the first chair, which had a view not only to a side window but also to the windshield. And what a view it was! Mountains as I’d never seen, huge rivers flowing down the bridges, and so many shades of green it almost hurt my eyes.

Looking back, I realize how insane it was to do that trip all at once. If I could go back, I’d have a night of rest in a San José hotel before taking the bus. Still, there was something transcendental about being so tired in such a magnificent place.

It was dark when I got to Copa Buena, a small pueblo near the Panama border. The Jaguar Luna Cultural Arts Collective, where my novel was going to be written, was a fifteen minutes ride from there. I got out of the bus into a cab that took me to Jaguar Luna. The cab driver, Jorge, became one of my closest friends in Costa Rica, and always took me wherever I wanted to go.

I was the only residing artist at that point, and was allowed to pick any cabin I wanted. I fell in love with a second-floor room with a gorgeous view of nature and a rustic desk where I could work on my book.

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For most of the time, I only had contact with four people. The owner of the place, the one who gave me the scholarship, was an American named Huilo. Besides him, there were three Costa Ricans who worked there, taking care of the gardens and building a new theater where Huilo was hoping to have a drama fest.

Apart from the owner, nobody in Jaguar Luna spoke English, which meant I had to learn Spanish to survive. The language is close to my native Portuguese, but there was a lot to learn. Amongst the workers, my best friend was a boy of my age named Alexis, who shared meals and coffee with me, and taught most of the Spanish I learned there.

The road to the pueblo was steep, and I had to call Jorge every time I needed to go for groceries. He had a four-wheel drive jeep and took me around while sharing some good laughs. I managed to do the trip on foot only once, but had to call Jorge to take me back. My feet hurt for days after that.

Something that struck me about Copa Buena was that all buildings had only one story. Another curious thing happened when Jorge said he needed to put some gas on the car. I was expecting him to drive to a gas station, but he instead parked near a house with metal drums on the porch. The gas was passed from those drums into the car through suction, and Jorge explained that the pueblo was too small and remote to have a proper gas station.

Back at Jaguar Luna, surrounded by nature, I worked on my book every day. In the afternoons, I took a walk around to observe the wild life. The days were hot and the nights were freezing, and there were heavy rains at least twice a day.

My cabin was far from the main building, where there was hot water. So, for most of the time, I took cold showers and used a dry toilet. That place was harsh to the body, but a paradise for the mind, and I was able to write three to four-thousand words a day, every day.

There was only one main interruption to that routine, when I took four days to travel to Manuel Antonio and attend a writer’s conference. They wanted me to talk about how I released my previous novels on the internet, and I thought it would be nice to see a little more of Costa Rica.

This time, I traveled through the Costanera, and arrived at Quepos, from where I took a cab to Manuel Antonio. It was near the Pacific Ocean, hot and wet. The meeting was at a restaurant called El Avion, and my hotel was across the street. For the first time in weeks, I was surrounded by people and noise, and was a bit intimidated. The meeting was a success, and in two days I was on another bus back to Copa Buena.

The Costanera runs side by side with the coast, and you can see the Pacific through most of it. The plantations of palm trees are beautiful there, if you’re not too tired to look around. I was thinking about my book and how I had to finish it before the date I should go back home.

For the next couple of weeks, I worked hard on the novel, and finished it ten days before the deadline. Ninety-thousand words of the saga of a jaguar living in the jungle, during the European colonization. I was bringing it home with me, knowing it would take a lot of work before it could be submitted to a publisher.

I took those last days to enjoy nature, to read and talk to my new friends and learn more about their culture. Costa Ricans love chicken, beans and fried plantains. They’re an amiable people, and their catchword ‘pura vida’ is an expression of cordiality you hear all around the country.

Saying goodbye to Jaguar Luna was sad, but with my book ready it was time to make that eight hour trip back to San José. This time, there was something bittersweet about it. Will I ever come back to Costa Rica?

One of my last adventures was at the bus station, the same I had been at two months prior. When the time came to collect the luggage, I couldn’t find my ticket. To prove that the case was really mine, the driver and the security guard pulled the books from it and asked me the titles and the names of the authors. That satisfied them, and soon I was taking a cab to my hotel.

Being in a room with an air conditioner, hot water and espresso machine was bliss. There I ordered my first pizza in two months, and slept like a king. Too bad I couldn’t enjoy it for long. The plane was leaving in a day, and my home was waiting for me. It felt like a long way since that afternoon in which I sent my application. In those two months, I became a new person, and wrote a new book. One I could never have written under normal circumstances.

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BIO: Matt Ferraz is a Brazilian author with works published in English, Portuguese and Italian. He’s the creator of the Grandma Bertha Solving Murders series and the novel Sherlock Holmes and the Glad Game, which features the meeting of Holmes and Watson with Pollyanna from the classic children’s books. Matt Ferraz Newsletter: https://tinyletter.com/MattFerrazAuthor Matt Ferraz Goodreads page: https://www.goodreads.com/author/show/14405163.Matt_Ferraz

 

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