Travels With my Baby Son Noah. 1974 to 1975
Posted on November 04 2017
I took Noah Star to Columbia when he was just under one year old. I had heard about a comet called “Kohoutec”.The comet was going to be seen most clearly from Bogota.
At the time I felt I might learn something about light quality. News reports said the comet would make a difference to light. I believed it, heaven knows why. Actually, truth was it was simply a brighter star, particularly strong at dusk.
Kohoutec inspired me to work really hard for six months designing a collection of tie-dyed Chamois clothing, earning enough money to pack up my worldly goods, buy some more skins and take off with a baby, alone, to Bogota.
I was away for a year. I left with $500 cash and my usual trust in my ability to keep Noah and me safe. I am always amazed when I look back at that plan.
We arrived in Bogota in the evening. Dusk. I was traveling with 7 pieces of luggage, no back-pack. I always used suitcases and in 1974, as far as I know, they were not made with wheels. I hailed a taxi. As we traveled into town it was obvious that it was a night of celebration everywhere, something to do with a big ball game, complete with fireworks exploding in the heavens.
The taxi driver told me there was little or no accommodation to be had and that he could take us to stay with his family. Here was an apartment with large rooms, very little furniture, kind people, and a welcome for Noah and me. I remember standing on the balcony with Noah in my arms looking at the bright star and marveling because it had inspired me to do what it took, to arrive fearlessly in Columbia with a baby less than one year old.
The following day I found a “Pension” to stay in while I planned our next move. I used to live day by day and the best plan was to go to the nearest park so that Noah could run and play. Imagine us, both completely dressed in Tie-dyed clothes. I wore a long skirt and tunic blouse and Noah shone in tie-dye baby Osh Gosh dungarees. A young woman, intrigued, sat down with me to find out who we were, so colorful and different.
After a while she told me we would be happier coming home with her and trustingly we found ourselves in her little apartment with hardly any spare room for the suitcases!
After a couple of days she convinced me that I should take Noah and fly to Cartagena, a 14th Century walled city on the north coast of Columbia. I took a taxi to a hotel called The Colony. By this time I was exhausted and maybe a little overwhelmed. I remember there was a great long flight of stairs winding up to the cool upper level and a courtyard with Palm trees. My room had a high ceiling and a great slow creaking fan which hung from the ceiling looking like old airplane propellers. I felt frightened that I could be sliced to bits if one of them fell down. Yes, even thoughts like that were part of my time at that hotel. Noah, still a crawler and by the way, still breast feeding, wanted to learn more stair-climbing on those marble stairs. No wonder I was afraid.
I would wait until he was napping and dash out to find some food.
The young woman in Bogota had told me when I got to Cartagena, to find my way to a hotel just outside the city, the”Bella Vista” She told me it was known for being a place Americans chose to stay and that it would be easier for me. We taxied to the hotel. I let him drive away before I was told there was no room. I sat there in despair. A gringo strolled by and told me what to do. I sat on one of my suitcases with Noah on my lap in the sun by the front door of the hotel, ( a little scrubby patch of couch-grass and sun-chairs), and waited.
Then I rang the bell again.”Herman” came out, we spoke some more and I discovered he spoke French so I told him I was going to stay there until he found me and the baby accommodation. He returned periodically to see if I was still there. I can imagine the scene inside. The owner of the hotel was from Marseille. “Madame, there is an English Lady sitting on one of her many suitcases outside on our doorstep. She and her baby are wearing rainbows, tie dyes from head to foot, she refuses to leave and she speaks good French.” It was evening by now. Maybe fascinated, Madame told him to bring us in to her and we met, me in strange and beautiful tie-dyes. with this chubby blond baby. We were destined to spend many fine evenings together.
The courtyard of our hotel was a busy place. It was divided in half by a big wall. On one side, Columbian families habitually came to stay and enjoy the beaches nearby, On the other, Gringos. A totally different scene. They would sit around tables drinking and staying extremely high all day long. Meals were inexpensive and regularly served, there were lots of chirpy young ladies in pale green cotton dresses and aprons who cleaned the rooms, washed laundry incessantly in the wash-room, clearly visible to us all as they bent over great concrete troughs with slanting, rough scrubbing surfaces. Great boxes of detergents beside them.
A couple of Macaws screeched all day, perched in the branches of big rubber trees growing around the courtyard. Six or seven dogs lay panting all day in the shade, waiting to be hand-fed by Madame or her most trusted cook every evening at six.
Madame, immediately beguiled by Noah, crawling about at great speed, issued orders that the dog-shit problem be taken care of immediately and consistently as long as Noah and I were staying in her hotel. He was the only baby in our courtyard. Madame was wonderful and an absolute tyrant. Oh and for very little money any of us could have a small amount of top grade grass tied in paper dropped into our lap by one of the little maids, any time.
Soon Madame gave me a decent room. Perfect. Noah’s first birthday would be the next day. I left him with someone carefully chosen and took the bus into Cartagena to buy his birthday cake.This is a rather vague photograph of the day of his birthday but until I can find another..
I unpacked my beautiful tie-dyed Chamois skins and tools, found a table and began to work. A few days later she saw me sell a garment for a couple of hundred dollars and was fascinated. She asked me if we would just stay and live and she would give me an even better room so that I could work and sell my pieces to tourists as a sort of attraction! But I really I wanted to get to Equador. After a couple of weeks, I packed my bags and we headed for the airport. No room on the overbooked plane that day nor the next. For about a week I tried to fly to Quito. With taxi expenses and frustration, I began to lose my nerve about how far away we were going. I changed my ticket for one to Costa Rica, and we flew to San Jose. I had heard of one of the inevitable ‘Gringo” lodgings to be found in the center of town and booked thankfully into it. There was a small restaurant on the premises, I was exhausted and didn’t care if there were rats! Noah asleep, a candle flickering, we were on an adventure and this was fine by me.
We stayed there for another couple of weeks while I watched my money dwindling away. We made friends with other travelers, sitting around in each other’s rooms, Noah playing with other babies. We ate fruit, smoked the forbidden weed, recounted our adventures, giving and receiving information about our visas and where we had been and were planning to go. I remember young Americans who had bought land sight-unseen from real estate dealers the USA. They were in San Jose to buy light farming equipment ready to till their land somewhere out there. Maps would be spread. Goodness how brave some of those people were, so young and with such big plans. San Jose had the most incredible hardware shops, selling equipment from Sweden, Switzerland. If you could name it you could buy it!
I was running out of money. I was holding a mere $100 in travelers checks. San Jose was becoming too expensive. I heard about villages where $100 would last awhile, long enough perhaps for me to work out what to do next. I took a taxi to the airport with Noah, the luggage and a friend. (Alas, I forgot a large basket in the boot of the taxi containing my favorite things, my jewelry, all Noah’s tie-dye nappies, oh so many things., even a fat package of photographs…oh well)
We flew to Quepos. Quepos in those days was a dusty little town, a 20 minute ride from Manuel Antonio beach.It had dirt roads, and the houses were made with absolutely no eye for design. Strictly makeshift, every one of them. I found a shabby hotel, walked in and heard moaning from a room nearby. No one else was there because at the time the whole town was down the road in trauma at the death of one of their boys who had been stuck in a drain pipe. I searched and found the manager, a small woman, completely helpless with an attack of lumbago! I asked her where I could find a pharmacy and there was one nearby. Leaving my suitcases, I carried Noah to it and bought some big mustard plasters. After I had applied one to her back, she directed me to a little room.
Quepos looked like an old cowboy town, clapboard houses, several saloons and shops that seemed to be full of plastic shoes, large brightly colored toys, cloth yardage, but not a single bikini. later I noticed a couple of tailors who would make a man a snappy pair of shorts for very little money.
By some stroke of luck, I was able to rent the first new house to be built in the town in some time. It was barely furnished, just a small crudely made table with boxes for stools so the workmen had somewhere to eat their lunch. There was still a wheelbarrow in the shower floor (no stall, just a spigot on the wall for water) used to mix concrete. The house had three rooms and a kitchen with no stove but an open window with a sloping rough sink for washing food and clothes. Locals would make a small cooking stove out of a large square tin lined in concrete with a little grid on top.Here’s how I remember that…I bought and hung one of those three tiered wire baskets on a nail to keep food away from any passing rats. There was a large garden with Mango and Papaya trees and even a Bread fruit tree and an irrigation and flood channel at the end of the garden. I soon found out how local pigs came up out of channel the to eat the fallen fruit. I had to put a stop to that with the help of my new neighbor. The house cost me $35 a month and I lived there for six months. I loved my neighbors and they loved me in return.
Mildred lived next door. She was eleven years old. Her Grandmother, Dora, kept Ducks and Geese their garden. They both immediately fell in love with Noah. Dora and I made a deal. If I would give Mildred French conversation lessons after school several times a week she would pass a large plate of food over the fence for Noah and me every day. Deal done. English was not needed because Mildred was learning that in school. Dora taught me how to wash clothes the Costa Rican way. Do it first thing in the morning on the rough slanted fine concrete scrubbing board on the out door sink with cold water spigot so that you get it over with for the day, then you can have a sunny peaceful natter with your neighbors. Admittedly Noah and I were fairly fascinating to Dora. In those days there were very very few foreigners living there and virtually no English ladies! We wore a lot of very fine tie-dyes made by my friend Joy Ng, who used to make them for the Grateful Dead..and my leather work was finer than they had ever seen I think.
I gave Mildred her lessons faithfully and we shared our lives. I also gave Mildred little pairs of earrings and she cared beautifully for Noah, who was rapidly learning Spanish along the way. Mildred tried to keep as much of his wardrobe in her room as she could, and Noah toddled and lurched his way around the garden and pooped on their kitchen floor along with a chicken or two. Those chickens were always sneaking into the house. Noah, along with other babies of his age spent most of the day naked and dirty!
Once a day, in the morning, the local bus service would try to reach Manuel Antonio Beach, famous among surfers world wide.
That’s where the young travelers lived in their VW buses I found out. Riding the bus too or from the beach involved bumping and swerving ago avoid holes in a jungle road, torn apart in the rainy season and cracking dustily in the summer months.
We might make it halfway up a hill through the jungle, the bus groaning and choking. The driver knowing exactly what was coming. He had probably seen the problem in the engine before leaving the garage but simply hoped it would hang on one more time. The bus might give one shuddering choke and stop, well, sort of stop. A gigantic heave on the brake and his brother or whoever would leap off the bus and run for the nearest big rock to stash under the wheel. All of us would step down gingerly into the heat of the day (at best) and start walking. The distance between the beach and the village was about twenty minutes by slow bus,when it was running, so we were usually within walking distance. Noah could get pretty heavy of course but there was usually a kind man to take the load while we walked.
It was always worth the risk to get to Manuel Antonio beach. There, I would set up a small space, make jewelry, sell it and keep a small but steady stream of money coming in.
There was one little cafe, ‘Fred’s” where we could run a tab, the long stretch either way of white sands and the generally American Surfers.
Many of them lived in hammocks and tried to ignore the insect bites. Some lived in their campers and cooked their own food. The beach was lined with an amazing selection of trees, Bananas, Figs, Avocados, Mangoes and many kinds of gourds and creepers.
If I ventured, as I often did onto the narrow jungle paths, there were monkeys and occasional large snakes to be carefully avoided. I used to walk alone with Noah riding on my shoulders from one beach to another one that was more remote where I could find Pucca shells, Noah could play and we would hunt for lovely semiprecious stones. The path was quiet in the afternoon. It was incredibly beautiful and a bit frightening. I wasn’t particularly afraid of snakes but I was slightly scared of the very charming but rather lecherous game warden, and I was very scared if I heard the approach of the nasty little motor bikes ridden by locals that sounded like overgrown mosquitoes. (I had been afraid of motor bikes all my life, something to do with childhood during the war.) afraid they would come at me..( I used to flatten myself against the hedgerows in England as a child when I heard one coming) Another story.
I had no camera and was developing a fondness for pointilism. I had my little old drawing book from which I will extract the odd sketch from time to time.I've been browsing my first traveling sketch book.
There was a rock out at sea visible from Manuel Antonio Beach. The locals called it The Sleeping Iguana so I did what I could to show what they saw.
On weekends, the locals would travel to the beach with large families and huge picnics. The men drinking lots of beer, enjoying the foreign girls in their little bikinis and plenty of other babies for Noah to play with. A lovely mixture of people, dogs and babies. I loved it.
I lived in Quepos for six months. When you have lived anywhere for six months you often feel as if you have lived there for ever! I made many friends, both Costa Rican (they call themselves “Ticos”) and those from many parts of the world who were settling into or building homes in the area. Costa Rica was known then as a wonderful country to go and find a new and beautiful life.
Actually I found that many of the aging Americans living nearby looked like my idea of CIA operatives, but of course most of them bought land there because Americans over a certain age and with Social Security checks were made welcome and could live more than comfortably. Lots of fruit and vegetables and a fascinating climate.
Foreigners living in or around Quepos were pretty familiar in attitude there, as in any expatriate community. I found them the same in many ways as those I knew on a Greek Island where I lived for a winter. Friendly, nattering in little restaurants, becoming regulars, watched with amusement by local Ticos, particularly the children. Children will, if given a chance, crown around a doorway, five at a time, and watch you do absolutely anything. Anything foreigners do is fascinating to them. Truly almost everything is done differently in their own homes.
Quepos in the rainy season was really fun. The unpaved street we lived on became a muddy torrent and everyone carried their sun-umbrella. In my house I could not hear anyone talking even if they shouted at me because I had a galvanized tin roof, what a racket. Oh, and the mosquitoes. After a certain time of day the only thing to do was to climb onto the bed I had had built early in my time there, get under the mosquito net and stay there. Scott, Noah’s father joined us, after a narrow escape involving a Mexican Jail (another story..) after Noah and I had been living in our house for three months. After Noah was asleep in his own room under his own mosquito net, we would spend hours under the big American Army one we had, reading or watching the rats run along the rafters. I truly think they moved in even before me.
Behavior becomes hibernatory in the rainy season. It has to because it is hard to converse, so books become much sought after, (remember this was way before the Internet anyway) The day Time Magazine came into the local store was wonderful and we used to fight a bit over it I seem to remember!
Time came to pack and leave because I had accepted a job overseeing the weaving of Serapes in Mexico for an exhibition in Texas and had to meet my new boss in Oaxaca on a certain date. Scott would be traveling with us as far as Antigua in Guatemala. We traveled from San Jose on a bus. Noah was pretty good although it was not easy stopping him from crawling down the aisles among cigarette buts etc. Antigua was very beautiful and the local dress was amazing, including the little bowler hats! I found a garden of ancient ruins for little Noah to climb around in I remember, but otherwise memories of that journey are hazy. I think I made a mental note to keep them that way. It was fun up to a point but remember, I still had about five remaining pieces of luggage. Anything more than a good sized back pack is too much for a traveling American and that is of course very smart. Managua in Nicaragua was still suffering the results of the great earthquake of 1972 and accommodation was difficult. I remember the room we found being a bit like a huge cardboard box, but we were only passing through.I’d like to try including a good sleeping bag if I ever venture out that way again.