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Costa Rica, Day 3: Coffee with Batman

SATURDAY, APRIL 26

(Writing this 4 months later, full of gin as I fly westward, it's a little hazy. Some details may be fanciful. For a photo slide show of this period, click here.)

Getting ready to leave Manuel Antonio, and the Dutch guy who was burned so badly he slept on the floor next to the TV is up and awake. So is the giant Italian who reminds me of a coworker's husband, a famous chef in DC. Both are half naked, and enjoying some early-morning weed. I catch bits of comprehensible English here and there. Societies founded on leisure, for sure. I'm still kicking myself for not getting Microsoft Mike's contact info - my strategy of asking a friend at Microsoft "can you track down a guy named Mike whose startup you bought last year?" proved fruitless. He was a fun guy. Perhaps I'll reconnect with him when word of his next startup reaches me.

We take another long, bumpy ride - there's really no other way in Costa Rica - to a little (tourist) village in the middle of nowhere and wait to transfer to another shuttle bus. There are dolled-up dancers doing whatever style is prominent there - it looks fairly traditional. Also a veritable pet store of parrots is perching from trees around the cabins, dropping half-nibbled fruit to the ground and forcing me to do some fancy footwork to avoid getting beaned.

Up the mountains we go, past various farm or wild animals - it's hard to tell this far up - to Monteverde (Green Mountain, I think). It reminds me of Leavenworth, Washington, a German enclave full of fake old-world charm, though of cours this is the Costa Rican version. The guy behind the counter named Ran - in S's e-mails with the hostel I always imagined him a tall, dark local - is actually a pudgyish white guy who looks like he played in a punk band 10 years ago. He could probably pass for Eurythmics-era Annie Lennox without her makeup (although I think he's wearing some). I have a feeling he could break into a Johnny Rottenesque pillage while he's frenetically booking our outings in Monteverde.

Sadly there were no sweet dreams, or God-queen-saving, in this hostel. Masked by its funky-dorm decor, which includes some pretty good local rock on the stereo, rocking chairs on the porch and Internet cafe/wifi (plus a kickass in-house burrito counter), this place is about as urban as you can get. In Manuel Antonio the birds woke you up - here it's motorcycles at 5 a.m. about 10 feet away, a window that doesn't shut all the way, and ditto for blinds. The social vibe is also different - Manuel Antonio felt cozier, like you could relate to the people better. People are still chatting and cooking dinner together here, but we don't quite fit in, like we're 2nd-semester transfers who missed the friend-making at orientation.

One of my lifelong dreams (besides going on the Gong Show and managing a country-music star) was satisfied in Monteverde: visiting a coffee farm. There are a handful within 10 minutes of town, and we picked the Santa Elena cooperative. We pass a dining table on the porch filled with four varieties of coffee beans under glass as we walk into the associated gift shop, which offers samples of several brews. Costa Rica's version of Michael Keaton greets us, decked out in a logo'd polo and baseball cap.

Any good coffee tour includes a healthy dose of self-righteousness, and it's probably 45 minutes before we actually step onto the farm. Stopping halfway down the steepest, windiest road I've ever experienced - built specifically for the coffee business here - we get a primer in local history, and the coop's efforts to stay afloat as much bigger coffee growers with less emphasis on quality push their way in. (There are other coffee tours in the area by bigger brands, but Costa Keaton emphasizes the coop is nonprofit.) Apparently Costa Rican coffee drinkers are just as clueless as Americans when it comes to what's in their cup. But the coop is making a comeback, no doubt in part from American buyers - they sell through a Montana mail-order company.

Oddly, when I ask Costa Keaton if he's seen the seminal coffee documentary "Black Gold," about Ethiopia's struggle to get a fair price on the world market for its premium beans, he gives me a blank stare. Progressive activism here takes a much more blue-collar turn, I guess. (Organic production is rare, for one thing - it's far too expensive with little benefit, Costa Keaton says.) But the views from this spot halfway down are stunning - we can see a waterfall in the distance, as well as the Pacific.

The actual coffee farm we visit, one of several in the coop, is lush with agricultural porn. Our guide has been working the family farm his entire life, reminding me of a Costa Rican Balky Bartakoumous, and doesn't speak English, so Costa Keaton translates. We see several little coffee plants in their early stages, lots of other flora (banana trees are everywhere in Costa Rica, and they look like giant phalluses before blooming), and the highlight of the visit for me, sugar cane.

There's a giant hand-turned press in the middle of the farm, like something you'd see slaves turning to generate electricity. Balky feeds some sugar cane he just ripped off the vine through the press as we take turns, two at a time, turning the contraption, while the juice from the cane runs out. We all get cups - it's pretty close to sugar water, but not corn-syrupy, a clean sugary taste. My flamboyant inner-Queer Eye takes over as I giddily crank.

Later we visit the processing factory where the beans are cleaned, stored and roasted. It's much less glamorous, reminding me of the Queens warehouse district near S's parents' house. Since it's not harvesting season, there's no activity. We go to a giant warehouse filled with dirt, where apparently worms do something to the beans. There's a children's mural on the wall, another exercise in small-time pomposity.

Dinner that night is at a fairly Americanized sitdown place, similar in style to a Thai restaurant. I can't remember in the least what we ate, but it was good. Then we went to the grocery store across the street in Costa Leavenworth. They have some good beer, so I grab a bottle. Also tiny tins of sweetened condensed milk, which is essential to Vietnamese style coffee and which I've been unable to find in the U.S. (it's hard to keep a giant can for long after it's opened), so I pick up a couple. Our cheesy American-ness shows as we tipsily peruse the aisles, laughing and pointing.

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