DISPATCH: Puerto Viejo De Talamanca


I took this photo of Marlanie on the porch of Soda Marley on Christmas Day 1998. To say our relationship was complicated would be an understatement. She cooked up the best fish on the coast but she was also a matchmaker, a drug dealer and she was sleeping with her cousin.


Back then Puerto Viejo was a small village of 50 members of the Afro-Caribbean Bribri Tribe. Downtown was three blocks long. There was one tiny grocery store, one baker and one bus a day in and out of town. It came in the morning and if you missed it, you were out of luck.


On the front porch of Soda Marley, Puerto Viejo De Talamanca, Costa Rica

Everyone knew everything about everyone in this place. Of course, I didn’t know that. I didn’t know anything, except that it was magic. Pure ocean breezes by day and Bob Marley all night in the one Reggae Club where the road rounds the bend up the coast towards Manzanillo. The village boys that crowded the club were African Adonis and life was Pura Vida.


So on my third day, when Marlanie offered me a job in the soda and a room in her house, I said yes and yes and immediately moved my things from Hostel Californian into her spare room across the street from the soda.

When I rolled into town this last Saturday, twenty years later, I half expected Marlanie to still be on that porch playing Dominoes with her brother Dillion, shooting the shit with everyone who passed by, slinging a whole fish into the fryer, telling me it’s gonna be alright as long as I let her fix me up with that boy over there.

Instead of her soda and her house and the little thatched place that sold beachwear, there’s now swanky coffee bars and cafes that sell vegan spring rolls and organic quinoa bowls. The roads are paved and PV now rambles out of town and halfway to Manzanillo built up with all the trappings of a tourist town including pizza, bike rentals and all the Ganga you can handle (at least that hasn’t changed).


Where once there was just 50, now it’s 3,000 full time residents almost all in their twenties and thirties with white skin and American passports. The locals mostly live - and keep to themselves - in the upper quadrant of town, around the soccer field, the church, and the back roads away from the hustle of college graduates on bikes, buying up oat milk lattes and Avo toast, and checking a salacious weekend in Puerto Viejo off their bucket list.


There is still reggae. There is still a special kind of magic, but no one - not one - greeted us with “Pura Vida”, which is all anyone used to say.


We had dinner Saturday night at Soda Tamara’s, across the street from where Soda Marley once stood. I asked our server, an older man in a Costa Rican soccer Jersey, if he remembered her and he did - his sister Tamara was her best friend.


He told me that Marlanie passed of a stroke eight years ago. Long after Dillion moved to Limon, and the road had been paved. Long after she had sold her space to a European couple who built a much bigger, modern soda that still sells fish. But not Marlanie’s fish. And not to any of the faces I remember or wish I could find.

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