The Australian who had introduced himself as Akim handed me an umbrella and yelled over the rain that I would be given a proper tour in the morning. I nodded and closed the patio door of the Tican guest house, watching his angular form plod down the path, his footsteps making little splashes against the stones, until the dark mist enveloped him.
My room had a sloped ceiling and doors that swelled in their frames. The walls were a shrieking orange, mustard curtains offset the rain-streaked windows and a tangerine bird of paradise crooked its beak from a clay pot on the sill. The air was pungent with perfume, which I eventually traced to a single lilac wilting in a water glass next to my bed.
I flopped down beside it, weary from the bumpy ascent from the San Josi airport by jeep, lurching over boulders slick with mud. As the road, overgrown with jungle debris, had narrowed, my driver Enrique had cursed the plantation owner who'd refused to pave it.
"Course why should he fix a road for his coffee pickers who will never travel beyond the boundary of this plantation?" he'd shrugged.
When our journey had ended in front of an iron gate rimmed with barbed wire, Enrique had smiled at my surprise.
"This is the yoga retreat?" I asked.
"Sm," he'd said, pushing the button of a remote control that opened the gate of this medieval fortress with a tortuous groan.
Now nestled in bed, I picked up a book sitting on the wicker nightstand. It was signed by the retreat's owner. Scanning its jacket for a bio I discovered my host had once enjoyed beautiful women, "more money than God" and had just put the deposit on a new Citation II plane -- "so he could fly even higher, faster and further" -- when he was arrested for manufacturing and distributing organic ecstasy.
Learning I had sought spiritual refuge at the residence of an ex-con was oddly reassuring. I had seen my share of devout yogis who had launched off on vision quests to India only to return shell-shocked from the burning bodies in the Ganges and the stench of shit in the streets. Trying to overcome their post-traumatic stress, they'd insist that from the darkest mud grew the unspoiled purity of the lotus flower. Then they'd book their next trip with Club Med.
As spiritual seekers we had left the caves and monasteries. Hell, some of us were eking out our existence in the urban sprawl, meditating on roaches scuttling across the sink, exhaling the OM seed of all sound as the tenant in the basement screamed obscenities at her man for bringing home a whore.
I'd known that any lasting sense of peace would have to be culled from the eye of the storm. So I'd wanted to teach those immersed in chaos: the mentally ill, convicts, beaten wives of cops. I settled for Chicago's downtown day traders, who I figured were teetering close enough to the abyss. But I began to feel myself numbing to the city's frenetic pace; seeing myself as a facilitator of stress management rather than an inspired yogi; increasingly overshadowed by the stark skyscrapers that reduced the sky to a two-by-four patch of gray November.
I opened the book to a random page.
"I see through the apparent suffering now as a balanced equation of freedom and limitation in which Consciousness is amusing itself," it read.
I drifted to sleep watching a millipede scuttle across the blaze of orange paint.
In the morning I awoke early, padding onto the porch in bare feet, stunned by the panorama of miles of cloud forest descending into the valley 5,000 feet below. My own front yard was a teeming micro jungle of feathery ferns and red-splotched begonias sagging heavily under the morning dew. Several species of orchid exposed their furry tendrils and leafy lips accented with hot pink or spotty leopard from satin petals.
I pulled on my jeans and boots and ventured into the outer gardens where golden Buddha statues dotted the landscape, and grapefruit, oranges and mangos rotted into a kind of citrus ambrosia underneath my feet. Peeking into the other guest houses I noted a definite '70s drug decor: white leather couches, mirror crisscrossed with gold lame, Jacuzzis, rice paper screens.
A few feet away a woman with a bob of dark hair entered a mesh-covered enclosure and gonged a bell from within. She came out and laughed when she saw me standing near.
"Well that means it's time to eat," she said, her voice husky and playful, motioning for me to follow.
Paz was the Tican cook who would take me under her wing and predict, from her hand-painted tarot cards laid out in a crucifix, that I would find sexual healing in the jungle. Smoking a joint we'd nibble on pickled palmito and pejibaye, peeled mini-coconuts, dipping the nutty fruit in mayonnaise, then sink into the hot tub, tracing the glistening gold-tiled OM symbol on the bottom with our toes.
At 50 she was wild, dating a Rasta from San José whom she'd let hand-feed her sweaty little beef-and-plantain empanadas he sold in reggae clubs. She teased the virgin coffee pickers who waited for her to drive by in Akim's Mercedes -- they, in their shacks baring the plantation owner's black numbers on their corrugated metal roofs. She seemed to have no sexual inhibitions, in contrast to my current experiment with yogic celibacy, which, incidentally, had taken its toll.
My last dinner companion had remarked after my fifth consecutive kiss-on-the-cheek goodnight that dating me was like eating Chinese food. But I was bent on conserving my kundalini -- my yogic life force, for beginners -- its snakelike form coiled so tight at my crotch it was bound to give me a hernia. A spiritual retreat would conceivably realign my flagging spirit with la vida pura. In retrospect, it may have been more appropriate to choose an arid desert or secluded mountaintop for such work. But here I was, on a jungle property owned by a former drug dealer, my closest friend a female reincarnation of Pan.
We entered the dining room and Paz winked and pinched my arm before disappearing behind the kitchen door. Akim and his wife, Elena, were already seated at the table.
"Welcome sweetie," purred Elena, a tanned, catlike woman, extending her arm.
"Thank you. It's gorgeous here, although I had expected more guests," I said, noting I seemed to be the only guest.
"Expectations get you nowhere," she interjected with a yawn. "Keep yourself open."
These two were a wordly pair. They'd spent 25 years in ashrams being vegetarian, training in bodywork and meditation, until they finally rejected the whole idea of disciplined ascetic practice. Elena smoked and drank coffee, said it reminded her of her cafe days traveling among the intelligentsia of Berlin where she'd studied psychology and the rebirthing movement.
Akim had been a high school teacher feeling the pressure to move to the suburbs and get a cat. But they'd met the ex-con peddling his book to New Agers abroad and described him as a playboy powerhouse and entrepreneur. At the parties he hosted, guests were said to lay their guns on the table before sipping their cognac.
"The perfect personality to deliver to the West a mass-consciousness wake-up call," Akim said.
The couple had agreed to oversee the spiritual center, targeting yogis as a receptive audience that could ensure a steady cash flow.
"But don't you meditate anymore?" I asked.
Akim sighed and Elena shrugged and began to set out plates of tamales wrapped in banana leaves, sopa negra, bean gravy soup with hard-boiled egg and slices of brown bread with guayaba jam.
"We spent five miserable years in India," Akim began, "because despite all the fevers, the misery in the streets and the flies that swarmed in with the monsoons, we were enthralled by the enlightened souls that place gave birth to. And we endured it all for Satsang, just being in the presence of such company." His voice trailed off. "But that's an awful high price to pay for Satsang."
The next morning I sat in the center of the yoga studio, dutifully waiting for Pablo, the instructor. My impatience softened as I gazed at the butterflies flitting about their garden at the studio's rear. The owl butterflies, named for their piercing iris painted on each wing tip, were like tiny birds, graceful even as they voraciously grazed on banana leaves and plates with succulent bits of melon, mango and heads of fish. Others were tiny and delicate, sprayed with streaks of dusty blue. Earlier Manuel, the butterfly farmer, had pointed out to me the most gorgeous chrysalis; one glistening like a metallic raindrop, the other hanging like an earring of jade.
When Pablo arrived I was pondering a dying moth in front of me, its wings already disintegrating like charred paper.
"They stay winged only 12 weeks before they lose their scales," he said softly.
I looked up at a stocky, bearded man in his late 30s regarding me with a sleepy koala bear smile.
"Their behavior is fascinating. For example, when a male smells the pheromones of a female he desires, he follows her scent until he meets her. When she notices him he begins to dance, swooping and diving in an elaborate ballet and then brings nectar for her to suck upon with her straw-like tongue."
He stroked the wings of the moth absentmindedly as he spoke and its spasms ceased.
"She drinks until full and if pleased lifts her abdomen ..."
"What if she's not interested?" I shot back.
He looked up with golden eyes.
"Then he has to try harder," he shrugged, reaching for my hand to pull me to my feet.
"Shall we begin this morning's practice?"
Later as I helped Paz prepare the vegetable soup for lunch, cutting up plump pieces of pear-shaped chayote, yucca and eggplant, she assured me Pablo wasn't some sort of mellowed Don Juan.
"Oh God no," she said, eyes wide, as she mixed a pitcher of horchata, a roasted rice drink, tasting it with her finger, then adding more cinnamon.
"I've known him and his wife for years. She's the wild one, running off with her guru while he stays home with the kids. He's quite serious about his spiritual discipline and has never strayed as far as I know."
After eating ice cream with blackberries, Akim rather reluctantly handed his Mercedes keys to Paz and we began our descent to the market in Alajuela. We parked in front of La Agonia Cathedral and wandered into the market crammed ceiling-high with produce, beans, rice, corn meal and flour. Immediately boys surrounded us, trying to lure us to their stands with pouty lips and sweet phrases.
"They think I'm the rich one," Paz whispered, taking bills out of her satchel and handing her list to the handsomest who shot back a mischievous smile.
Afterwards we waited in a decaying courtyard filled with cats for her dark lover to answer his bell. A slender, dreadlocked boy came out on a balcony and, waving coyly to Paz, buzzed us in.
Almost immediately Paz disappeared behind a curtain of beads with skunky smoke wafting through it, leaving me with the pretty Rasta, Renee, who Paz had assured me was a fascinating figure, being both a photographer and local soap opera star. He crooked my elbow affectionately and escorted me to the kitchen where his skulking roommate, Tio, sat hunched over the Formica table snorting coke with a mustached sneer. Renee, hand on hip, poured me a shot of amber-colored liquid and turned back to the stove to fry up mashed green plantains with curry.
"Sit down," he invited, twirling a matted lock.
I sat stiffly across from Tio who lifted his sweaty, bloated face and regarded me with pig eyes.
"Como estas?" I ventured.
He just coveted his stash with his right arm and gasped a few punctuated breaths.
I stood up and accepted another drink from Renee who turned off the stove and led me upstairs to see his latest show. Climbing a creaky, winding staircase, I entered a room with black walls lit by a single fluorescent bulb. Photos of naked girls in gilded frames glowed from all sides.
"What, do you think them pornographic?" Renee asked, seemingly concerned, his pinky finger dangling off his lip.
I studied one in the corner of a woman with hooded eyes, a thin mustache over parted lips, a faint smudge of pink lipstick on her front teeth, and a stringy blue boa.
"You seem to have exposed a kind of sadness in them that is quite endearing," I remarked.
Satisfied, he admitted the girls confessed their fantasies to him like a priest. Gradually Paz's smoky voice drifted upstairs, backed by guitar. She entered the room, eyes glazed like marbles, and placed her hands on my hips from behind. We swayed as her Rasta crooned a Burning Spear tune.
"Take their photo for your porn," Tio scoffed from the stair's landing. "Especially that pale, freckled one. Tanto inocencia!"
We ignored his dark rumblings but suddenly he sprung up the stairs, grabbed my hand, and slid his slimy tongue in between each of my fingers.
"I want to suck out all your juices!" he spat on my face.
"Cabrone!" Paz hissed, cracking his face with a strong open hand, and yanking me down the stairs and out into the street.
"Would you believe he is lead violinist in the philharmonic?" she exclaimed hotly, opening the car door.
"A male butterfly never would have done that," I considered as we drove back up the mountain.
"What?" Paz said wearily. Her mascara was smeared into the creases that edged her eyes. "Did they give you anything to drink?"
"I only had a few of those little cups that taste like licorice," I said.
"Ay, Dios mio," she sighed.
My eyes felt heavy. It was a labor to unroll the window so Tio's slime could air dry between my fingers. By the time we closed the heavy gate it was past midnight.
The next morning Pablo listened to my recapitulation of the night's events without his characteristic smile.
"Ah, the allure of the damned," he finally muttered.
"So pious!" I returned.
"Not really," he said, laying out our purple sticky mats. "Just beware of leeches who drain your energy."
He folded his hands in prayer and bowed to me indicating we were to begin. As we held the postures in the warrior and sun salutation series, my muscles quivered.
"Breathe prana into them," he said gently, placing his hands on the area of spasm. "Breathe into my hand."
As I concentrated on the warmth of his touch, the release brought renewed strength. Pablo brought my attention to my subtle anatomy, the musculature expanding between my rib cage as I stretched my arms over my head, the wings of my sacrum in my lower back spreading when I contracted my abdominals. Afterwards he left me to meditate alone, a horrifying prospect. He suggested movement meditations for my brand of American neurosis and put on an Osho CD.
"Writers especially need to meditate," he smiled, shaking his head. "Always masturbating on some imaginary thought process. Just close your eyes and allow yourself to experience the music."
"What if I hit the wall?" I asked.
"Feel the wall," he answered, this rain forest Yoda.
Admittedly, at first, I sashayed about, peeking under my eyelids. But after a couple days I began leaping and twirling with such fervor I got a standing ovation from the locals working construction around the studio.
Two days before my departure, Pablo and I were returning to the retreat from running errands in town when he drove down a dirt road and stopped at a wooden bridge lined with railroad tracks. I followed him to the bridge but hesitated at the edge. Between rotting slats of wood, bits of space loomed and collapsed in my mind's eye.
"I used to play there as a boy," he mused, walking halfway across, pointing down the slope. "I'd spend hours just climbing trees and inventing stories."
"You mean masturbating on imaginary thought processes," I teased.
He smirked, then noticed I wasn't moving.
"Close your eyes and walk across," he urged.
"No thanks," I said, sweat beading on my brow.
He came close.
"Hold my hand and keep your balance," he said with that familiar gentle light in his eyes.
I shut my lids and took a baby step forward, shifted weight, then slid the other foot in front where it wobbled slightly ...
"Breathe," he hummed, releasing all but one finger.
After three more steps I felt secure and he let go. I exhaled and strained my foot forward but felt nothing but open space. My eyes flew open but immediately Pablo snatched me to his chest and I gripped his forearms, my heart pulsing in my neck.
"There was nothing there," I whispered.
"But I caught you," he said, holding me tight.
I inched back holding his hand, gasping inside, and we drove back in silence.
"I think that was my final lesson," I said curtly, and abruptly turned away.
The next morning Akim interrupted my packing to tell me Pablo was waiting in the aviary down the hill to give me a massage.
"A massage?" I asked.
"He said you wanted to skip practice today. Overworked those muscles, eh?" he teased, and strolled on to greet the construction crew.
My muscles did ache, I thought, closing my suitcase and heading down the path. I knew this secluded spot surrounded by fruit trees was Pablo's favorite hideaway from the tourists. I opened the screen door and found him mixing peppermint oil and lotion.
"Lie down and take off your clothes," he commanded, and left the room.
I undressed and watched him sniffing a bush of the slick cherry blossoms known as labios de puta, hooker's lips.
"Listo!" I announced, letting the light cotton sheet float over me, my fingers curled into my palms.
For the next two hours he unraveled the knots of tension in my body fiber by fiber. I flinched when he traced the slight curve in my lumbar spine my father used to tease would degenerate into a witch's hump. He hovered there, probing the misaligned vertebrae and easing the muscles on the right side of my back until any lingering shame evaporated. Likewise he traced the scar tissue on my forehead that remained after a drunken driver hit my car three years ago, pitching my skull into the windshield, and the tattoo on the small of my back that bore my dead mother's favorite flower.
"Strange how he finds each nook of trauma," I thought, drugged with his presence and the rhythmic movement of his fingers kneading my skin, surprised to find my eyes leaking little damp spots on the pillow. Finally I rolled over and our eyes met. He rested his hand, pulsing with heat, on my belly and the other firmly on my temple. We remained like that, suspended.
Gradually I heard a faint humming above me and followed his smiling eyes to a ruby-throated hummingbird hovering inches away, sipping the essence of an orange blossom. I felt the beat of its tiny wings on my face. We laughed as it spiraled off in a winged stagger, drunk off the nectar.
It was almost unbearable, his shining tiger eyes and the deafening silence so pregnant with possibility. Losing hold of my body's borders I closed my eyes, unafraid to fall.