My Tico Heart: Katya De Luisa, Manuel Antonio
Updated: Sep 27, 2021
In 1980 and I was discontent with the US political system and wanted to leave the country. But where to go? I’d previously resided several years in Mexico and wanted another Hispanic country. So, I asked the Universe to send me a sign. Two days later, a friend visited and told me he'd just come back from Costa Rica. "Where's that?" I asked. He then pulled a map from his pocket. I received my sign.
I arrived in Costa Rica with two small sons and $900, and we began searching for a beach area to live. En route to Quepos on the Pacific coast, we passed through miles of Palm Oil plantations. The pot-holed dirt road from San Jose was a grueling six-hour journey and left us exhausted and covered in dust, but I came alive when we crossed the bridge into town. We found a home.
Quepos headquartered the Standard Fruit Company, replanted the banana plantations with Oil Palms after a blight destroyed the crops. There were only two streets; one in, one out, but it had all the necessities: schools, hospital, bank, market, buses, and an array of small businesses.
Just south of town, I found my paradise. Manuel Antonio was pristine with miles of white sand beaches with mountain jungles meeting the shore. Small farms dotted the mountainsides, and a new National Park had just been declared.
I rented a rustic house in the mountains which had no electricity, and we pumped water from a well up to the tank above the kitchen. Windows were screens, and we slept under mosquito nets regularly disturbed by the nocturnal visits from jungle wildlife. Our kitchen was periodically raided by monkeys, and a sloth set up housekeeping in the rafters. We had to vacate when army ants invaded. The house had an incredible view of the valley, and our deck became our living room with hanging hammocks our furniture.
My children were used to globetrotting and settled in immediately. Damon was 12, and although he loved the jungle life, he was unhappy with the small one-room schoolhouse I enrolled him in. Trevor just turned three, and he was happy with everything.
Our only neighbor was old Perucho had a few cows and chickens. He sold milk, eggs, and fruit from his trees and made rustic brooms. He’d sell the latter once a week in Quepos and, with his earnings, would stay drunk until the money ran out.
Costa Rica was inexpensive, but with my limited resources, I needed to develop a way to make money and soon. After living in several seaside tourist areas, I knew this place would eventually become a significant tourist destination.
Unfortunately, Nicaragua, north of us, was waging civil war. This, combined with our lack of tourist infrastructure, created a scarcity of tourists. There were only three accommodations available. A dilapidated hotel at the entrance to the park, a beach bar/restaurant which rented sand floor thatched huts, and the exclusive Mariposa hotel on the mountain. There was no municipal water, and at the end of dry seasons, wells often went dry.
There were also no tourist activities, so I bought horses from the slaughterhouse cattle auction with the remains of my meager savings. I was the first gringa ever seen at the auction, and as I test rode several horses, the guys sitting on the fences would whoop and holler as I rode by. I bought six for $50 apiece.
My first tour was with a wealthy American woman staying at the Mariposa Hotel. After riding through the National Park, we stopped at the Mar y Sombra for a cold drink. Unfortunately, four immigration officials from San Jose were making a sweep of illegal foreigners that day. When my client explained her passport was at the hotel, they were nasty. So stupid me; I reprimanded them, describing how tourism eventually would be the bread and butter of this country. They immediately turned their attention to me, asking to see my passport, which I had left at my house. “Ok senorita, vamos a su casa.”
While sitting in the back of their cramped jeep, sandwiched between two officials, fear came over me; my visa was expired. I noticed the pistols hanging from their belts and remembered living in Mexico, where this type of scenario would have ended with my disappearance.
I nervously asked (because I had nothing to lose at this point), “Are you going to kill me?" All four of them simultaneously looked at each other and burst out laughing. Over cake and coffee at my house, I explained the Mexican version. They reluctantly informed me they had to take my passport to San Jose, and I would need to go to immigration there to fix the situation. The head guy gave me his name and offered to help.
The following week at immigration, he led me to a department set up for the influx of Nicaraguan refugees. He ushered me past the line and received my “Enpadronamiento” carnet renewable once each year from his buddy, the head of the department. I was officially now the first American refugee.
Five years later, I applied for residency. While looking over my documents, the woman said I’d been in the wrong department for years (As if I didn't know). I feigned a surprised look as she handed me my card, and life went on with a temporary residency.
Unfortunately, my tour barely sustained us, so we moved to a two-story house with a view of the coast. I rented the upstairs rooms starting the first bed and breakfast in the area. I also bought truck inner tubes, painted numbers on them, and rented them by the hour. Weekend Tico tourists would wait in line to get their hair cut then jump in the ocean. These endeavors turned out to be more lucrative than my tour and kept us in beans and rice.
Our closest neighbors were a half-mile away, so when I came home one day to find a small dirty child hiding in my bushes, I wondered where he came from. Maritza was a teen who escaped her abusive family to live with us. She helped with everything and had become a loyal part of the family. She explained, “He’s been coming for the last two days and hides in the bushes. When I try to talk to him, he runs.”
He returned the following day, and I placed a plate of food on the grass between the house and the bushes. Like a feral animal, he'd grab the food with his hands, stuffing it into his mouth, then run away. After a couple of days, he came onto the porch to eat and began playing with Trevor. They seemed the same age. He had light skin sandy colored hair, never spoke, and always arrived dirty. He allowed me to clean him only if I withheld the food first. What concerned me was he had a nasty discharge coming from both ears. I need to find his parents, alert them of his wanderings, and see if he’s been to a doctor.
After speaking with several neighbors, I was told the boy's name, strangely enough, was Manuel Antonio. He lived a half-mile down my road and was considered retarded, which explained why he never spoke. I paid a visit to his home with Manuel in hand, which was a windowless tin shack with a dirt floor. A naked toddler was sitting in the dirt next to a small woman cooking on a fire. Manuel's mother bore absolutely no resemblance to him. She was chubby, had kinky black hair, dark skin, and talked strangely like a deaf person. After explaining his visits to my house, I asked if Manuel had been to a doctor. She brought out a sealed bottle of antibiotics; obviously, he hadn't gotten any medicine. When I asked why she grabbed him by the ear, making him scream in pain while making a circle gesture on the side of her head, saying he was loco and wouldn't let her. Then she said, “You can have him; I don’t want him!” and she shoved him back at me.
Long story short, I took him in. He had been severely abused, and later a doctor told me he had even been raped at some point. He was only three. Trying to raise him was wrought with difficulties; although it turned out he wasn't retarded; he was emotionally damaged and eventually talked. Now a single mom with two more kids, and my dreams falling apart, I decided to change my career choice.
There were no maps of any kind in the country, so I decided needed to publish tourist maps. With the money from selling the horses, we moved to San Jose.