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Monday, April 19, 2010

Oxcarts on Parade!

Monday, April 19, 2010
(Note: Click on photos to enlarge)
         This was Climate Fair weekend here in Atenas, the town National Geographic once proclaimed has the “best climate in the world.” That’s quite a reputation to live up to but for the most part, in our limited experience, it has. So with two days of fair activities scheduled, the central park alive with vendors setting up their turquoise-canopied booths and an oxcart parade on the agenda, Layne and I had every intention of spending much of the weekend at the fiesta. But Mother Nature has her own ideas on these things and it is April, after all, the beginning of the rainy season. So when we arose on Saturday ready to catch the 10 o’clock bus into town, we were disappointed and a bit amused to find it was raining with no indication of stopping any time soon. Some perfect climate! Of course, we were not just disappointed for ourselves but also for the many participants scheduled to present events outdoors in the park: an exercise class, a dance performance by some children, other dance workshops, a magician and much more. So Saturday found us ensconced in our mountain chalet, Layne working on his novel and me reading, doing laundry and watching the rain come down.
         In early afternoon, the phone rang - if you can call the timid sound our phone makes a “ring.” More of a tinkle which we can barely hear. The call was from Leigh, a Tica friend we met on the dance floor a few weeks back at Kay’s Gringo Postre's monthly party. It was Leigh’s beautiful daughter and her boyfriend who set the house on fire that night with their skillful and passionate salsa dancing. Since Leigh knew we love to dance, she was calling to invite us to opening night at her new discotheque, El Mirador (The Lookout). As I struggled to understand the directions through her strong accent, I deduced that the location was somewhere just up the road from us. 
         But the rain had cleared by late afternoon so at the appointed hour we called a taxi and headed uphill with no clear idea of where we were going. Remember, there are no addresses here and since it was a new club, the taxi driver did not know the place either. But after a couple of miles of dark deserted highway with Layne and I giving each other a questioning eye, we saw the lights and cars at El Mirador and made our way inside. What a beautiful facility! Situated on the very edge of the mountain (with no doubt a fabulous view in the daytime), the restaurant and bar offers several levels of outdoor terraces and a large dance floor surrounded by countertop bar seating. More remote tables offer a quieter experience. And what tables they are! Clear glass tops affixed to huge - I mean really huge! - gnarled tree trunk bases. With pulsing salsa beats coming from the DJ booth, Layne and I soon joined other dancers with our own style of Latin boogie. It was a great evening.
         On Sunday Atenas dawned bright and sunny, warm and breezy, exactly as the guidebooks promise. After a short bus ride into town, we walked to the park and found it filled with colorful booths and happy Ticos wandering from one display to the next, nibbling on ice cream or sipping cold drinks. In the middle of the park was an exercise group, headed by a muscular guy on the small stage, pedaling away on their stationary bikes with the bright awnings of vendor stands radiating out to all corners from the central plaza. As we wandered along under tall palm trees snapping photos of the crowd, we saw children learning origami or getting their faces painted; we chatted with our own organic vendor, Genevieve, who had baskets of vegetables for sale, and Tom the organic baker, cooking up barbequed pork burritos alongside chocolate chip muffins; we stopped to watch artisans at work designing lovely creations with rock (yes, rock!) or fabric or wood; we inhaled the rich odor of chicharrones cooking in a monster pot and the sweet smells of blended fruit drinks. For much of the day, we simply enjoyed the smiling faces of adults and children alike. At one booth offering beautiful jewelry made from exotic woods, we bought a few gifts for friends and family, pleased with the high quality and low prices. We laughed at the makeshift electrical wiring running overhead through the trees and along the ground, commenting that in the U.S., strict regulations would prohibit such improvisation. Uniformed policia were apparent in the area but they seemed to have little to do besides chat with Ticos and look at the displays.
         When we heard the approaching fire engine wail, we realized the parade of boyeros (drovers) and oxcarts was about to begin so we found a place across from the main viewing stand where spirited Latin music had been blaring from giant speakers all morning. In loud and rapid Spanish, the announcers began introducing the passing parade participants, enthusiastically praising the size and beauty of the animals as well as the intricately painted designs on the carts.
         Atenas and neighboring towns are recognized for their role in the nation’s history as the pathway of the original oxcart trail created in 1843 for transporting Costa Rica’s famous coffee many miles down to the port cities of Puntarenas and Limon for export around the world. Although more modern transportation is used nowadays, the skills of training and working with these magnificent animals have been preserved along with the artistry of painting the beautiful carts. Even the children get into working with the massive animals and one little fellow seemed very much in control of his smaller pair. This young boy’s size and competence drew cameras all around him, slowing the parade until he could calmly make his passage through. In a few cases, the oxen (and some uncastrated bulls!) seemed to have a mind of their own, eagerly pushing forward despite the boyero’s efforts to slow them down with a gentle tap on the nose or a skillful application of the long drover’s stick many of them used lightly across their broad backs. Layne and I had to wonder if there had ever been any wild romps through town when an ox team decided to ignore the boyero’s instructions and literally “bulled” their way through! Not today, in any event, as the fair’s entertainment continued on into the evening’s dance without mishap. But having danced our quotient the night before, Layne and I soon headed back to our little hillside retreat for a quiet dinner and time to start blogging about what was a most enjoyable festival. 

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