Puerto Viejo residents still remember Paula Palmer, a North American woman who lived among them and collected their stories about Jamaican immigration and Caribbean culture for her book “What Happen.”
Since the book’s 1979 publication, Puerto Viejo has transformed from an agrarian economy of cacao, coconuts and fish into a sometimes solid tourist economy. Tourists come to experience the Caribbean climate and culture, and some of them return in search of a dream. The presence of these expats and Gringos has changed the original culture, but the culture has also changed them. The original greeting remains: “What happen.” Why did these people decide to come here, and to stay?
Life in Puerto Viejo has changed since Ms. Palmer helped put it on the map. She was educated as a sociologist and worked as director of the English School in nearby Cahuita.
At the center of town now stands Tex Mex, a landmark bar/restaurant built on the site of Ms. Palmer’s home. Passersby can still smell fish from the nearby shore, but the sound of the sea is drowned out by the noise of commerce taking place within the open-air atmosphere of Tex Mex. Pale-faced tourists order gallo pinto and hamburgers. Locals drink fresh coffee or beer at 10 a.m. Groups gather in corners to do suspicious deals.
Every morning Puerto Viejo resident Jay Doga comes to Tex Mex to work his magic as resident sign-painter. He remembers Paula Palmer because he has been living in town since 1986. He came to the Caribe Sur as a volunteer with the New Alchemy Institute. He said he decided to become a volunteer because he felt confined in his life back in Texas where he always wanted to be an artist/musician but was stifled by the climate of competition.
Doga met a woman who was working for the Peace Corp at the same time and decided to stay and settle down and see if he could follow his dream here. He married and started painting T-shirts to sell on artisan’s row along the beach. The couple went on to open the first souvenir boutique in town. Doga’s dream of being an artist has come true. He now paints signs for many of the businesses, gives his paintings to friends and leads a rock n’ roll band RAW, which performs regularly at Tex Mex.
Doga’s unique signs are displayed above the bar in Tex Mex where manager, Roger Cameron arrives early to serve coffee along with beer and batidas. He came to Puerto Viejo almost 11 years ago. Originally from England with a 10-year detour in Texas, he had set out with his Mexican girlfriend to open a mole restaurant in Mexico but found that he did not like the climate or culture there.
Someone mentioned Costa Rica as an alternative, so, knowing next to nothing about the place, he followed the lead, he said. He spent some time as a tourist exploring the coasts and the mountains but immediately fell in love with Puerto Viejo and decided to take his chances there, he added.
The monkeys reminded him of the tropical dream and the smell of the salt air reminded him of childhood summers at his grandmother’s Scotland beach home, he said. Like Doga, Cameron came here with few expectations but found it possible to create his own life in spite of the limitations of remoteness and uncooperative neighbors. He said that the culture in his town is different. People who move here have to change their way of thinking and the way they see relationships.
Cameron is a survivor. He said has seen many idealistic expats come and go because they refused to adapt to the unique way of life.
Drug use is rampant and frequently promoted, and a recent unsolved murder of a tourist shocked the community.
Michael Blake moved to Puerto Viejo just a year ago and says this is now his home. He looks like he could have been born in Puerto Viejo, but as soon as he opens his mouth you know he is a Canadian. (“Ey? What was that abOAt?”) He and his then-wife first visited as tourists. Like Cameron, they did the typical tour of the mountains and coasts, but Blake said he immediately fell in love with Puerto Viejo. He said he felt that he had come back home to his Jamaican roots.
Blake spent his childhood in Jamaica. At age 13 he was adopted to Toronto, Canada, where he married, raised his family and became a successful business owner. It was a difficult decision for Michael, but he chose to leave all this, including his wife, behind in order to follow his dream. In his case, the dream is a return to the simple, pure life he remembers as a child and the freedom to help his neighbors in creative ways. Blake is well-known as a positive influence in the community. He used to bring toothbrushes and soccer balls to give to the village children on his trips to Jamaica. Now he shows his generosity to the youth of Puerto Viejo.
Doga painted the signs for Blake’s water filtering business and for his newest business venture, a computer program flight simulator “school” where the grandchildren of Paula Palmer’s generation gather to practice their skills and Blake said he hopes set their minds on things other than petty theft and drug dealing. Blake arrives at Tex Mex every morning, leaves his flight school computer program in the hands of a young apprentice and goes on his rounds to deliver filtered water to local businesses. He said he is content to live his life to the rhythm of the sea and the seasons here where “even the rain is beautiful.”
Puerto Viejo seems to attract those who seek a simpler, more natural life that compliments not changes, the culture. Ms. Palmer is back in Michigan but her Puerto Viejo book has been reprinted and translated into Spanish under the patois title “Wa’apin man.”