Streets of Golfito focuses on two individuals who meet in Golfito, Costa Rica in 1974. Jim (Diego) is a 22-year-old Peace Corps Volunteer from upstate New York, and he has been assigned to introduce sports other than soccer to the young people.
By contrast, Lilli is a shy, beautiful, 17-year-old Costa Rican girl who wants to learn English and escape her small town, a banana port on the Pacific side near the Panamanian border.
In alternating chapters, the first third of the book shows these two characters growing up in their respective countries. Then, after they meet, Lilli experiences a tragedy that will drastically change her life, and Jim does all he can to help her survive and thrive in her new circumstances.
The sign sits at the southern end of town near the bus stop on the eastern side of the road, so that first-time visitors to Golfito can read it. The sign itself is beginning to rust, the paint is chipping near the edges, and the post on which it hangs leans a bit to the starboard side. And unlike historical markers in the United States, which often have an illustration or a detailed history of the highlighted person or event, this sign is stark in its simplicity. It reads as follows:
Un Voluntario del Cuerpo de Paz
Golfito is a somewhat unusual town. Tucked away on the Pacific side of Costa Rica near the country’s southern border with Panama, this “little gulf” really has only one street. Sure, many short calles and neighborhoods extend away from the main drag, but they don’t extend very far, and their residents have to return to this primary artery to visit other parts of town.
The town is like a long belt stretched between the calm waters of the gulf and the steep mountains that frame this five-mile stretch of land. By themselves, those physical characteristics alone would make Golfito unusual, but the human development of this port city makes it truly unique. For when the American Fruit Company decided to install its main banana operation in this quiet and isolated corner of the world, this small community really sprang to life.
For long before planned communities became common in the United States, the American Fruit Company divided Golfito into five distinct sections and began constructing them at the northern end of town.
First, the Company cut a path through the trees and constructed one solitary runway for the Golfito Airport with an accompanying building that was only slightly bigger than a two-car garage. This airport allowed the American executives to fly in and out rather than have to fly into San Jose and take an eight-hour car trip on the Pan American Highway. And since these same executives might also like to play a round of golf while they were in town, the Company built a nine-hole, par-three course alongside the runway: four holes on the eastern side and five on the western side with a clubhouse between the first tee and the putting green for the ninth hole.
The second section, and the first residential section, is called the “Zona Americana” because it was initially inhabited primarily by these American executives and their families. The president, the vice-president, the treasurer, and all the other key people who would oversee this new operation lived here, and the more important the position, the bigger the house and the closer it was to the airport and the clubhouse.
Besides the homes, this American section also included the Company office building, the Company grocery store, the Company hospital, the Company school for grades kindergarten through eighth, and the Company recreational facility which included not only an outdoor swimming pool but also an indoor facility with a room big enough, and high enough, for a game of volleyball. The swimming pool was open daily, and they showed movies in the big room three nights a week: Sunday, Wednesday, and Friday. The families who lived in this zone never had to leave the zone if they didn’t want to, and they rarely did so.
The third section was the first for the Costa Rican residents who worked for the Company, and again, the higher the person’s position in the Company, the closer that person’s house was to his or her job site. For example, the Costa Rican accountants who reported to the American Chief Financial Officer lived near the office building, and the Costa Rican nurses and orderlies who worked with the American doctors lived near the hospital. The houses here were not as big as those in the American Zone, and they were squeezed in more tightly.
This section of town also included two key buildings. The Gatehouse sat at the southern edge and actually included a large, metal gate across the road which restricted access. Only those who lived in these two residential sections or those who needed to visit were allowed to pass, and the Gatehouse was manned 24 hours a day. The Americans, after all, didn’t want just anyone wandering through their neighborhood or the one that bordered it.
Saint Michael’s Catholic Church and the Rectory where Padre Roberto lived were also located here, within walking distance of the Gatehouse. Thus, those who lived beyond the Gatehouse were allowed in on Sunday morning and on holy days, but they were expected to exit as soon as the services concluded. If the nearby residents detected a mild irony in the limited access to “God’s House,” they kept those thoughts to themselves or within their small circle of family and friends. Since the American Fruit Company was pretty much the only major employer in town, no one wanted to jeopardize his or her job or the allocated housing that accompanied it.
The fourth section of town was easily the biggest and the busiest. Just on the other side of the Gatehouse were the hundreds of small dwellings that housed the families of the blue-collar workers who toiled at the port and made it possible for the 50-pound boxes of bananas to slide off the railway cars and into the cargo holds of the huge ocean freighters that carried the bananas to North America and beyond.
This port section of town was anchored by the various facilities that made up the “downtown” area of Golfito: the import and export offices of the Costa Rican government, the storage facilities, the Club Latino restaurant and dance hall, the outdoor basketball court, the soccer stadium, the grade school and the high school, and the various stores and service shops that welcomed both the full-time residents of Golfito and the visitors who served on the banana freighters and the smaller boats that found their way to this tiny, key-shaped bay.
Perhaps the most popular structure in this downtown area, though, sat high above the town at the end of a winding road that climbed to a small plateau and offered the best view of the bay and the Pacific Ocean beyond. There, the “Vista” offered an open-air pavilion for dining, dancing, and socializing. Unlike the Clubhouse and the recreational facility in the American Zone, which hosted smaller crowds and closed relatively early, this nightclub was packed during the week, overflowing on weekends, and busy some nights until sunrise.
The fifth and final section built by the Americans was about a half mile down the road from the port because the land area between the bay and the mountains dwindled down to a space that could only accommodate the train tracks, the road, and not much else. Where the flat land area opened up again, the Company built another neighborhood full of small homes similar to the ones in the port area, and this section included another grade school for the children who lived there.
The only other major structure in this section was the Company’s sawmill and woodshop. Here, the trees that were harvested off the nearby mountains were cut, planed, and trimmed down to whatever sizes the Company needed to build new structures or to maintain those already in use. Naturally, the woodworkers and their families lived in this portion of town as did all the other manual laborers who were needed to harvest the bananas, pack them, and load them on to the train cars for transport.
The one small section of town that the Company ignored when planning this banana outpost was that narrow strip of land between the port section and the sawmill. This short strip of flat land suitable for building was so narrow that after accounting for the railroad and the main road through town, only about 50 feet remained, barely enough room for even a small house or a business. “Maybe we should let the locals fight over that little piece and see what they can do with it,” one Company planner said in the early stages of development, and they never came back to it. Thus, when Rodrigo Gonzales noticed the availability of that small parcel once the port was up and running, he sprang into action.
A long-time opportunist who owned and rented out various buildings in the public section of town farther south, Gonzales bought the narrow parcel from the Company and began constructing buildings and nurturing businesses that wouldn’t be adversely affected by the narrow footprint. At the northern edge of the strip, he built a long movie theater that included 240 seats, 20 rows with 12 seats per row.
Next, he built a series of six small storefronts with two small apartments over each one. He assumed some of the tenants would live upstairs over their establishments, but he also had an inkling that some of these apartments would be used for other purposes. Rodrigo had lived in this small, port city long enough to know that even when small boats entered the harbor, the men who piloted or worked on those boats were often looking for more than just basic supplies. So while the names and proprietors of these businesses had changed often through the years, by late 1973, this strip included four bars, a restaurant, and a vacant storefront, and only one of the second-floor apartments was occupied by a full-time resident.
After that fifth section of town, the public portion of Golfito grew up, and the contrast between the Company side and the public side was immediate and abrupt. While the structures on the Company side, both residential and commercial, were uniform in their design — like a boring, blue suit — the public side of town was more like Costa Rica itself: alive, colorful, and creative. The Company’s wooden structures all stood straight and tall in subdued greens and yellows with black shutters around the window screens. The public structures, by contrast, provided a mix of slouching wood and metal, and their shapes and colors looked like a madras sports jacket with food stains here and there.
The layouts of the buildings also contrasted. On the Company side, most of the commercial buildings were situated near the main road, and the houses fanned outward in a symmetrical pattern that showed planning and foresight. The public side, however, mixed commercial and residential throughout, and the building sizes and lots merged like a Jackson Pollock painting, scattershot and haphazard. On the main road, for example, Enrique Vargas, the richest man in the southern section, owned the very plain general store that stood right next to his elegant three-story home which looked like an old, Spanish mansion. And on the other side of this mansion hid a small, simple, metal shack that housed a fisherman and his family.
Unlike traditional Costa Rican cities, which were centered around a large, Catholic cathedral with a park and a promenade nearby, this too-narrow portion of Golfito possessed no church or park. Instead, a one-story, cinder-block grade school with an open soccer field out front anchored the neighborhood. Padre Roberto from St. Michael’s visited each Sunday and offered Mass in the school, but the service was later on Sunday afternoon. Padre Roberto’s first priority, after all, was the Company employees who lived uptown and whose Company furnished his church building and his rectory as well.
Was there animosity between the poorer people who lived in the public section of town and the richer people who worked for the Company and lived at the other end of Golfito? Yes and no. On one hand, some residents of the public end of town resented what they viewed as the easy life on the Company dole, but others cherished their independence and swore they could never live or work in such a closed and regimented environment. And while many people there criticized the rich-to-poor layout of the Company side, they could also see a somewhat similar pattern developing in their own end of town. The people with skills and entrepreneurial abilities always found a place to live in the main barrio, but the unskilled and uneducated typically found themselves in the smaller and less sturdy casas that littered the main road leading out to the vast banana plantations that made life possible for everyone.
(Though this book is not yet available in bookstores, you can order it online from Amazon by clicking the link below.)