One day of our stay in Costa Rica was set aside for a guided tour of the country's lower Caribbean shoreline, a 50-mile stretch from Puerto Limon down to the Panamanian border called "the Calypso Coast."
Early that morning we'd set off from Costa Rica's inland capital at San Jose, bumped along what passes for a highway for a couple of hours to Limon, then zipped down the coast for some Caribbean sightseeing and wound up in the little town of Cahuita, not far from Panama.
The town is known for two things, the first being its entrance to a national park packed with gorgeous flowers, exotic birds and all kinds of critters. I'm sure it's worth seeing, but the country is loaded with national parks, and I've been to a bunch of them. So I stayed behind in the town while the rest of the group went off to scamper around a primeval jungle accented by screaming monkeys and three-toed sloths inching along the treetops.
The Calypso Coast is named for the music of a large number of imported Jamaican workers who settled there after building a railroad between San Jose and Limon in the late 1800s. The workers' descendants are still there. Look around, and you'll see them selling mangoes, casabas, pineapples and the like at thatched-roof roadside stands subbing for supermarkets. You'll hear people speaking in the Afro-Caribbean-English patois of the old-time West Indies (here, with a bit of Spanish tossed in). And just about everywhere, from bars to barbershops, you'll hear vintage Jamaican calypso tunes wafting through the air, particularly in Cahuita.
Cahuita is a spot where you half expect to find Harry Belafonte sitting on a dock in clamdigger pants telling tales of how a lady named Matilda took his money and ran off to Venezuela. When I left the group to mosey around town I didn't find Harry - but I did find Walter Ferguson. Which brings me to the second jewel in Cahuita's crown.
Song of the 'One Pant Man'
I heard a catchy calypso tune - something about a guy with just one pair of pants - blasting out of a bar. When I went in to check it out, an elderly man came up to me and said, "That's me singing...I wrote the song, too." It turned out his name was Walter Ferguson, and he'd been a calypsonian in Cahuita "just about all my life."
Ferguson told me about his early days in the business when, as a kid, he wrote and recorded tunes on a rinky-dink audiocassette deck. He sold the tapes - each with two or three songs on them (with different versions on each tape) - to tourists who'd come to Cahuita to tour the park and afterwards to nosh on "jerk" and other spicy Jamaican tidbits in the town.
Ferguson said he's written and sung about everything from local politics to troubles with his girlfriends. Among the hundreds of songs he's penned over the years for CDs were these calypso chart-toppers: Cabin in the Wata (about a friend who built a cabin on stilts over the water in the national park to get around a law prohibiting lodging there), One Pant Man (about a girlfriend who evicted him because he was so poor he only had one pair of trousers), Callaloo (a popular Afro-Caribbean dish of leafy vegetables) and Going to Bocas (about moving to a Cahuita-like town on the other side of the Panamanian border after another girlfriend threw him out of her house, again for being poor).
I bought two CDs from him (from among a dozen different titles he just happened to have tucked away inside his coat).
On the way back to San Jose, I asked our tour bus driver if he'd heard of Ferguson. That's when I learned he's famous. He's known around Costa Rica as "the Calypso King," on par down there with Harry Belafonte. What's more, besides winning Costa Rica's most prestigious music awards, some of the country's top singers and bands have recorded his songs. For instance, Manuel Monastel - a sort of Latin Frank Sinatra - scored a big hit with his version of Going to Bocas.
The tour driver slipped one of the CD's I'd bought into the van's player, and for the next hour or so we relived memories of the Calypso Coast as we listened to tunes such as Cabin in the Wata, Callaloo and Ferguson's original version of Going to Bocas.
You'll find many of his tunes on the Internet at www.youtube.com. Just enter Walter Ferguson in the search box.
Photos by Bob Schulman