Dwarves and Goblins

We part company with our friends for our last two nights on the Caribbean. Josh and Meg stay in Puerto Viejo with a vague plan to head onwards to Mexico. The Nicholls retreat to an ecolodge in the jungle to ponder next steps. For us it is complicated. We had intended to make our way south through Panama and then on to find friends in Colombia, but both countries are now implementing pretty severe government restrictions of the sort that we don’t want to get wrapped up in. Mexico is a hotbed of Covid. Peru and Chile are no longer open to travellers.

Now we are not with our friends, all of our dwarves and goblins can come back out to play, those secret travelling companions of ours. Menna lives with friction drag – a dragon who wakes whenever she hasn’t eaten for four hours – and we must all tread carefully if we are not to get scorched in her devastating fires. Matilda has a host of little dwarves that travel with her – Grumpy, Sleepy, Lazy and Unhelpful are the ones we meet most days, though Disgusted often comes around at dinnertime.

Arthur gets possessed by a leprechaun if he doesn’t get exercised regularly; that is to say he goes all hyper and annoying, sings tuneless songs, asks a million questions, irritates his sister, breaks things.

I myself have wailing spirits trapped deep inside the bones of my battered body: broken shoulders that moan, the rebuilt femur that hums when the weather changes, a neck that won’t turn properly. There is the djinn of apathy too that rises in me in the early afternoon hours.

It is the money goblin though that has become the most insistent recently. He travels around most places with us now and has started to insinuate himself into our conversations in a most unwelcome way. ‘Everything is over budget here in Costa Rica’ he whispers as I drift in the afternoon haze. We had originally planned to eke out our money in various low-cost African, Indian and Asian destinations. Then Covid trapped us in expensive Europe for several months and now we are finding that Costa Rica is hardly the cheap developing economy we remembered. Last time we were here Menna and I would rent a house for $250 a month, but now we are spending that in three nights. We’re not good at tracking to a budget but we have a feeling that if we were, we would be looking at some worrying red numbers right now.

Once the money goblin is riding on your shoulder, he makes everything uncomfortable. ‘Does Matilda really need another set of goggles?’ He is outraged! ‘She has lost six pairs already.’ The kids are hungry and Menna’s dragon is starting to smoulder. ‘We can’t afford that nice restaurant on the beach though’ he wheedles, ‘Let’s head over to the backstreets and find a local kiosk where we can eat cheap. We’ve all got pretty tough stomachs now’. The little ecocabin in the trees where we are staying is lovely, ‘but there is a sweaty little concrete hostel in town where the rooms are half the price and they throw in the cockroaches for free’ he pleads ‘let’s move in there!’.

We have various late night conversations, Menna (safely fed), the goblin and I. And eventually we hatch a plan to get our spending under control. There is a place we know where there is some pretty heavy civil unrest and that is keeping tourism away. Furthermore they have recently been battered by two destructive hurricanes that have destroyed a lot of the infrastructure. You can only enter by land and it’s strictly a one-way deal, the borders back into Costa Rica are shut. Most of the commercial airlines have suspended their flights there. It’s one of the poorest countries in Latin America – in the world even! But the surf is great if you can get to the breaks, and it’s a place we know and love.

Everyone has warned us against it, but at this point that just deepens the appeal. We’ll go to Nicaragua.

We must not look at goblin men,
We must not buy their fruits:
Who knows upon what soil they fed
Their hungry thirsty roots?

Christina Rossetti, Goblin Market

Nymph, nymph, what are your beads?
Green glass, goblin. Why do you stare at them?
Give them me.
No.
Give them me. Give them me.
No.
Then I will howl all night in the reeds,
Lie in the mud and howl for them

Harold Monro, Overheard on a Salt Marsh

Buffalo Christmas

We wind our way through woods and shanty towns, past industrial zones and banana plantations until finally we arrive at the Caribbean coast. There is a mass migratory event that happens on the 23rd December in Costa Rica: cities empty and long lines of laden pickups jam the arterial roads. We have chosen to join them and traverse the country together. For eight hours we drive, inching our way along unlit potholed highways, sandwiched between ancient diesel trucks while Christmas hits rise and fade into radio static. This kind of trip takes its toll. Menna and I argued bitterly about some of my overtaking decisions.

Josh and Meg have come through with the goods though, finding us all a house at the eleventh hour. So it is around midnight that we roll up to our new digs: Casa Mango in Cahuita town. It is a bizarre crooked glass and steel tower, looming four stories high in a clapperboard village where no other buildings venture above two floors. The higher windows enrage the toucans that nest in the facing tree so they periodically launch frenzied attacks on their own reflections. There is a resident sloth too, navigating an arboreal map up in the towering figs; he descends to the ground once a week to deposit a prodigious mound of crap somewhere on the property.

We drive into Puerto Viejo next morning for coffee and last-minute panic buying. It’s a place with some notoriety in these parts. A reggae town where bright coloured paint peels off the driftwood store fronts, where fishermen, hustlers and barefoot surf kids mingle with Tico holidaymakers and stoner ex-pats; where dangerous snare-drum cannonades ricochet out from the beach market and the gridlocked cars on Main Street respond with honky-tonk klaxons; where bank security guards watch the crowds from behind dark glasses, fondling shotguns slung across their chests.

We arrive in town sometime around ten am on Christmas Eve and I guess the festivities must have begun a while ago, for there are already many prone bodies sprawled in doorways and stretched out under the palm trees. More Costa Ricans die with skulls cracked by falling coconuts than from all the crocodile and snake attacks together. This is one piece of wisdom I share with the others as the shopping trip slips into a more sedentary phase where fish tacos feature and cocktails on the beach. And somehow as afternoon surrenders to evening we are still there in town, presents un-wrapped, chatting with the lobster men down behind the fishing boats where the smell of weed is strongest.

The hardships of the road are behind us and we immerse ourselves into the reggae vibe. Christmas week slips past sweetly. Papaya smoothies, hard sun and transistor radio; sweltering nights with mosquito symphonies. The flushed faces of Matilda and Marlowe opening their stockings (‘Father Christmas did find us!’). Volleyball in the pool, a morning surf in Santa hats. We FaceTime our families at home, send WhatsApp messages to far off friends in alternate dimensions. Our playlist is all Lee Scratch Perry and Buju Banton, kids rocking out to the Banana Boat song. Meg cooks turkey and we eat it with chilli sauce and pineapple salsa. Cold Pilsen beers take the edge off the heat. We walk the beaches on Boxing Day, play charades and bake cookies. We are turfed out of our house and find ourselves driving around town knocking on doors in an unfortunately timed rainstorm, looking for accommodation to see in the new year.


“Where you people all from den?” asks the skinny black kid sitting on the bridge. But where we’re from doesn’t really matter now so much as where we’re going. We had been hoping to head on to Bocas Del Toro, an island archipelago across the border in Panama, but the whole country has gone into lockdown and ruined our plans.
“So tell us the news then chico, where’s the fiesta at anyhow?” but he just smiles and shakes his head. He don’t want no gringo white boys at his jam. So instead we come across Hotel Aban, a no-frills basic set of cabinas arranged around a small pool.

We eat lobster on New Year’s Eve, then swim, dance in the shallows, fight off hustlers on the beach, go to a circus show, drink margaritas and mojitos. We play loud games back at the hotel and go for a midnight swim. Time stretches, compresses, and this elasticity propels us into new year. We see 2021 in with something that resembles relief, even as we sprawl under the stars with cicadas whistling and all the dirty luxury of the Caribbean draped around us.

It is the promise of redemption and renewal that New Year brings; the clicking of astronomical gears that will surely return the world to safe kilter. This year will bring some kind of cosmic rebalancing I think, but this becomes an uneasy thought. Those of us who have floated away from the hardships of the pandemic like moths through the jail bars, where will we end up when the wheel of fate turns?

We test out 2021 gingerly: we find a sheltered bay, climb the cliffs, take pictures, get our cars stuck in the sand, eat pizza, have a beach run, make risotto, sleep off last year’s excesses. It all feels suspiciously like it did before. I stand on a rock outcropping at one point and frown out to sea, sun-dazed, spun-out and empty headed, wanting to think of something profound on that first bright day of the year. Then a huge wave surges up out of nowhere and I get soaked through.