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  • Writer's picturePura Vida Connections

My Tico Heart: Katya De Luisa, The Mapmaker

Life is just a movie, and my time in Manuel Antonio had been an Academy Award winner. Then the curtain came down; it was time to write a new script. After selling my jungle tour horses, we moved to the capital city to make tourist maps, however, I had no idea of how to make maps.

The year before our move, my oldest son, Damon, refused to go to school. I hadn’t received child support for years but his father finally coughed up the tuition for him to attend a private school in San Jose. After a year, Damon, now a teen, went to New York to live with his dad where he got a scholarship to the Visual Arts school.

Manuel, the abused three-year-old I’d taken in, was now in an orphanage. While still in Quepos, his mother had changed her mind and took him back. A couple of nights later, a neighbor showed up in the middle of the night carrying him. He was unconscious, purple bruises on his neck and eyes swollen shut from his mother rubbing his face with chili peppers. I called the police, she was arrested and eventually committed to a mental institution. I called the child welfare (Patronato) to assume legal custody, and they informed me I had no rights. I’d have to bring him to their office, and he’d be placed in an orphanage in San Jose until declared legally abandoned.

I can’t express my heartbreak. Manuel had lived with us for several months, had finally started talking, and for the first time in his life, he was loved. On our way to the city, he asked where we were going, and tearfully I lied, telling him to a school in San Jose like Damon. I promised to visit knowing my meager income didn’t allow for many trips to the city. However, the new move to San Jose did eventually enable me to see Manuel every weekend.


I found a housesitting job in Escazu, a small-town west of San Jose. At this point, my family had been reduced to Maritza, Trevor, and me. Our last house in Manuel Antonio had been to a pretty run-down place which had been all I could afford at the time. So, the new upscale living arrangements were wonderful. Ah, the ecstasy of a hot shower!

At the time, Costa Rica had no maps of any kind and my first map was to be of Quepos/Manuel Antonio, yet I had no experience in making maps and knew I had a lot to learn. At the Instituto Geografico, I copied the street layouts from their ariel maps and began searching for a graphic artist to do the advertising.

I met Javier Escobedo working for some friends. He was handsome and had that Latin charisma I’d always found attractive. In order to learn everything about map making, we’d spent a lot of time together. He taught me how to do ad layouts, which at that time were cut and paste. I'd been a collage artist most of my life, so I was a natural at this.

We visited printers and enjoyed a lot of lunches together. One thing led to another, and we became a couple, moved to Calle 20 in the center of the city and opened, Imagine Publicity Co. as partners.

Javier was a naturalist artist, and we included colorful paintings of flora and fauna in all our publicity. For the next four years, we published over 25 maps of tourist destinations and countless brochures for the budding eco-tourism businesses. We even landed a contract with ICT, Instituto de Turismo to do the graphic designs for the countries first international eco-tourism campaign. We didn't get rich, but we were able to pay the bills.

After our move, Maritza conceived a daughter on her day off. She disliked Javier intensely, so after Melissa was born, she moved back to Quepos. I felt lost without her support. We had a string of different home helpers who never became family-like Maritza.

Eventually, Javier and I married thus beginning my “Immersion in cultural differences.” We were dynamic business partners, but our marriage was not. I hadn't wanted to get married; living in sin was fine with me. But he said we could get Manuel out of the orphanage if married, and we did.

After three years of waiting to be declared abandoned, Manuel finally came to live with us. We changed his name to Mauricio.


However, our marital dysfunction had become intolerable. When offered a cabin on the beach in Puerto Viejo, Limon, I decided to leave Javier. However, he’d always been very persuasive and convinced me the move could be the new start our marriage needed, and I reluctantly agreed to try.

We arrived exhausted but overjoyed to find the cabin right on the beach. Although weather-beaten with no electricity and water from a well, it seemed like paradise after hectic city life.

A month later, we moved across the road to another equally “rustic” cabin with a half-acre of fruit trees. Our landlord, Horacio, was a tall, elderly black man whose grandparents had immigrated from Jamaica. Most Limonenses had the same heritage. Every day, he would bring a sack of fermented cacao beans on his old horse and lay them out in the wooden dehydrator in the front yard.

Black Beach had volcanic sand which turned white at the village a kilometer away. The thick jungle bordered miles of open beach north to Cahuita and south to the Panama border. The town had sand streets and also no electricity, although a few places had noisy generators like Stanford’s discotheque which would blare continuous reggae music until 10 pm when everything went dark and quiet.

Local farmers sold their produce, and bartering was common currency. We bought fresh coconut bread, and the milkman delivered in recycled liquor bottles that hung from his horse's saddle. Every Saturday, a cow was slaughtered, and the body hung from a tree in town. The townspeople would arrive with plastic bags, and the meat would be carved directly from the carcass. Local fishermen sold their catch from their dugout canoes on the beach. During the lobster season, my children's usual complaint was, "Not lobster again!"

Manuel Leon (aka Chino) had a general store selling everything under the sun. He changed dollars, gave loans, sold real estate, and had the only telephone in town. Although the latter was housed in a sweltering closed phone booth, everyone waiting to use it heard the conversations which eventually became juicy topics for town gossip.

Our house was regularly visited by an array of jungle wildlife; the most troublesome being the army ants. They don't make nests; they were always on the move, eating anything alive in their path. Our neighborhood was periodically invaded, and everyone left their houses for hours till they’d pass through, a real pain when this happened in the middle of the night. They were the jungle exterminators, and you’d be alerted by stampeding insects and small reptiles which preceded their arrival. Army ants only halted their continuous march when the queen is laying eggs, or they're hatching. They'd construct a basketball-sized sphere of millions of ants holding onto each other with the queen in the middle. One day, I discovered one hanging under our kitchen sink. Javier sprayed them with insecticide which only killed the surface ants. In seconds, millions of furious survivors covered the floor and walls; we ran for our lives. For three days we cohabitated with the ants without using the sink. When finally gone, they left behind a pile of rice-sized eggshells.

In spite of the continuously unexpected events, life was ideal. The marriage was going better, my boys liked their tiny school and loved their free-range childhood, exploring beaches and riding bikes. Damon, now 16, visited us for a month and it was wonderful having everyone together.

Eventually ICE the electric company began putting in poles and lines. Months before the electricity arrived, salesmen from Limon appeared offering easy credit. The locals went into debt buying refrigerators, stoves, TVs, and stereo systems. They plugged everything into primitive wiring systems designed for generators. We assumed when ICE turned the switch, there'd be explosions and house fires everywhere.

On Christmas Eve night Santa brought electricity to Puerto Viejo. Astonishingly we actually heard the electricity coursing through the lines as the town suddenly lit up like a Christmas tree. Amazingly nothing exploded.

Unfortunately, it would still be years before the phone connections arrived. We decided without a phone, the survival of our business couldn't wait that long. We decided to move to Puerto Limon, where we were already working on their first tourist map and had good relationships with most of the tourist businesses.

Javier landed a National Parks Foundation contract to illustrate their promotional posters and with this new income, we relocated to a small neighborhood outside of Limon, a few blocks from Playa Bonita.


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