During the day, the landmark that best sums up life in Playas el Coco, Costa Rica, is probably the mammoth construction crane in the middle of a half-finished condo complex. Up on a razed hillside, it’s visible from almost everywhere in town. Locals tell me it hasn’t moved in over a year.
At night though, the town’s emblem – at least for some expats – has got to be the mermaid outside of La Vida Loca bar. Larger than life size and made of concrete, the statue looks like a cross between the Hottentot Venus and a giant toad.
La Vida Loca has a thatch and tin roof and no walls. I’ve heard the place is where expats of a certain age go to meet local girls of uncertain and perhaps unlawful age. You get there by walking along a dark stretch of beach.
This may not hold up in court, but we’re going for the ping-pong.
The three of us – me, my boyfriend Dave, and his old friend Jim, who lives here – park where the street dead-ends at the beach, near local crackheads lounging under a palm tree. One shambles across the sand towards us; over his wasted bare torso he wears a shredded Day-Glo orange vest – the kind Costa Rican freelance parking attendants wear. “I’ll watch your car,” he croaks. We give him mock salutes to match his quasi-official garb. We’ve already taken everything out of the car so as not to tempt even the most desperate thief.
The beach looks different since they tore down all the ramshackle structures encroaching on the maritime zone, which is 50 meters up from the high tide mark. Building on this publicly owned strip has always been illegal, but only in the past few years has the Costa Rica government made good on its threat to bulldoze any structures in the zone. Coco Beach looks better now without all the helter-skelter buildup; there’s even part of a running/biking trail along the beach’s north end.
You hear La Vida Loca before you see it—1960s rock booms out into the tropical night. Rumor has it that the guy tending bar has been through most of the local girls and is rarely sober. A regular points out to me what he says is the bartender’s kid from one of the women working the bar. The child, dressed only in a diaper, bangs a stick on the cement floor. We make our way through hockey banners, hub caps, and fish tanks to the ping-pong table at the back.
“There’s more fish now,” says Jim, who moved here over a decade ago. He surveys a tank with colorful fish and a pre-Columbian-style statue of a grimacing man with a huge erect phallus. “I remember when that gar was in a little tank, didn’t have enough room to turn around. Look at him now!” The long, skinny fish with a toothy grin has a tank all to himself.
Jim married a local girl (she worked at the hotel where he first landed, fortyish and flush with US cash) and now has two daughters that he’s putting through private school. About his wife, he says, “It was between her and the head maid. They were both after me.”
Unlike the bartender, Jim rarely drinks before 5 p.m. He’s chugged only one or two tonight, mostly to counteract the strong coffee he drank to prepare for the match.
Jim and Dave have been here before. When they lived and worked together on a ranch in the Guanacaste highlands, the trip down to Coco for ping-pong was the highlight of their week. They take the game seriously. One year they even brought wood to repair the table, and they always bring their own paddles and balls.
Dave hasn’t played for a while; Jim plays often and has never been beaten on this, his home table. The bartender once offered free beer for life to anyone who could beat him. Jim beat the bartender, but the life’s supply of beer met an untimely death shortly after the first night.
Even the rally for serve is serious business. I go over to the fish tank several yards behind Jim to get a closer look at the gar. Jim stops, paddle in one hand and ball in the other, and looks over his shoulder at me.
“I might hurt you back there,” he tells me, his face serious, his body twitching with squirrelly energy.
And it’s on. The Jim Nabors twang of ball on table belies the heavyweight spin and torque the players put into the game.
The first two games go to Jim.
The third goes to Dave. “I’m getting him up here,” Dave tells me, tapping his temple. “It’s all mental.” Dave reaches for his Pilsen and takes a long pull before heading back to the table.
Old surfboards are stuck pellmell in the rafters. There’s a foosball game over in the corner and a mannequin rocking some FlashDance garb. Oldies but goodies play on the sound system: Blinded by the Light. Hey There Little Red Riding Hood.
Someone comes over to watch. I learn that when the fish in the heavily populated tank aren’t looking too good, Jimbo feeds them to the gar.
Rallies don’t last long. Serves are not often returned. One return hits the edge of the table and shoots under the fish tank.
Someone else tells me, “La Vida Loca’s doing pretty good here since all the other bars were torn down. This is the only beachfront bar left.”
Over closer to the bar, a pretty dark-haired woman sits in front of a laptop computer. Middle-aged men from the US chat up lovely local girls a third their age. Skanky dudes hover around the periphery, ready to supply the substances that allows the men to keep on drinking and still be able to extract their wallets from their back pockets to pay for another round.
There’s one North American woman sitting at the bar. Like me, she’s forty-something, and like me, she looks out of place here where there are really only two categories of clientele: older foreign men and younger local women. The men are here to live out certain kinds of fantasies that don’t quite fly back home, many of which include underage girls.
Even working class stiffs from up north are big fish down here where jobs are scarce and it seems many women have three kids (and no husband) before they’re 20. A single man with some disposable income looks mighty good to them. And a sexy young thing whose Northern equivalent wouldn’t give these dudes the time of day looks mighty good to the men, who often profess to be fed up with the feminists up north.
One Canadian expat told me that you could tell American society was being feminized by the sitcom characters. All the women are competent and intelligent, he said, and all the men are doofs.
Back at the ping-pong table, the match is going fast and furious. When Jim loses a point, he recites his mantra: ping pong ping pong ping pong. He jumps up and down, rolling his neck like a boxer between rounds.
At this point I lose track of the game. I’m nursing my Coca Light, watching the drama of first world men and third world girls. That I am neither gives me an odd feeling of dislocation, especially when I see the girls eyeing my man. More than one guy arriving in Costa Rica has dumped his age-appropriate sweetheart to frolic unfettered in the fields of nubility.
“You only live once,” is a common mantra down here, ironic because this is precisely where people come to live out second and third and even fourth lives.
Jim wins the match, thank god. If he hadn’t he would have demanded a rematch, and I’m more than ready to go. Before we leave I have my picture snapped with the concrete mermaid out front. Later, when I look at the photo, I briefly see the old girl as regulars must see her. Beautiful and benevolent, she’s a fishtailed mother goddess and the patron saint of starting over, night after night after night.