IT’S 9:30 on a Friday morning as Imake my way through the wide halls ofSan Jose’s Children’s Museum. I ask anattendant behind a desk if he could directme to Los Magos del Tiempo (Magicians ofTime), and with a nod and pleasant smileof recognition, he points through a giantarchway toward the back of the building.A burst of applause and roar of laughterlead me to an open-air courtyard and anintroduction to 20 young people who threeyears ago formed their own circus. At themoment I enter, they are climbing downfrom stilts, pulling themselves up fromgym mats, untwining themselves fromintricate and what look to be painful bodilyknots, and forming a large circle in thegreen grass.At this point I know next to nothingabout them. I have been told only that thegroup is preparing for a trip to Belgium,where they are to perform and train withmore seasoned circus elements. But forwhatever reason, they are not what Iexpected.Ranging in age from 18-33, they areolder than I had imagined. I count fourwomen among them. All are Costa Ricanwith the exception of three Colombiansand an Argentine. They have no coach ordesignated leader yet struck me as capableand very organized. They are dread lockedand tattooed, barefooted and flexible in theextreme.I am warmly greeted as I cross thecourtyard and sit in a lone patch of shadeon an already hot morning. A few minutespass, and a latecomer arrives with heavywooden stilts balanced across his narrowshoulders and a small black duffel bag inhis hand. Weathering the playful jeers ofhis friends with a dismissive wave of hisfree hand, he joins me in the grass. This isFran Palomo, 23, and as he empties hispack and readies his gear, he tells me howthis grassroots circus came to be.“At the beginning, we were eight or 10smaller groups,” he says. “My group wasstarted by a Frenchman, but I learned whatI know from my friends here and watchingand participating in street performances.”What he has learned is how to breathefire, walk barefoot across coals red withheat and run, leap and dance on a pair ofsix-foot stilts.“The oil you use to spit fire can be verytoxic,” he admits, as he rolls a cigarettefrom a pouch of loose tobacco. “You mustbe careful not to swallow any.”ACCORDING to Palomo, thesesmaller cells of performers eventuallycaught wind of each other, and as peopledrifted away – either because of lack ofcommitment or the need to travel home toother countries – those who remainedcongealed into the group stretched outbefore us.They have been practicing at theChildren’s Museum for a time, exactlyhow long Palomo can’t remember.“In exchange for letting us use thisspace for practice three times a week, wegive performances here for kids once in awhile,” he says.I ask if the circus is a full-time job, orif he and his friends are forced to find additionalwork. He chuckles and proceeds tolead me around the circle with his finger.“He is a painter. He sells herbal medicines.She works in a bakery. That bum, hehas no job,” he laughs. Fran tells me he isstudying guitar.The performer explains that the otherjobs are necessary, as the group is rarelypaid for a gig. They have traveled throughoutthe country, performing in Limón,Guápiles, Puerto Viejo and here in SanJosé. Unfortunately, they are compensatedfor few of these appearances.“We perform so people will know ourname,” Palomo says.BY this time, the warm-up is complete.The group divides into three. One workswith saws to make necessary adjustmentsto the wooden stilts. Another fades towardthe back of the courtyard and begins topractice a dance routine. The third andlargest group pairs off and reviews tumblingsequences.I thank Palomo for his time and wanderover to a curly-haired youth whose partneris helping another group with their moves.I ask about this upcoming trip to Europe,and Sergio Barrantes explains that he andfour others already have their plane tickets.“A foundation in Europe has agreed topay for five of the tickets. But what wewant is for the whole group to go.”He admits the task of raising money forthe entire group is a daunting one. But headds that next week they have a meetingwith the Ministry of Culture to discuss possiblefinancial assistance, and he seemsoptimistic about the outcome.TODAY the group is operating underthe assumption that their desire to travel asone will be a reality. Barrantes says today’spractice is dedicated to a show they hope togive upon arrival in Belgium. He assuresme the reliable staples of their act – jugglers,gymnastics and exhalations of fire –will all be included.But, he says, in this performance, they want to show their hosts something authentic:through costume, music and dance,they wish to convey a strong connection toand appreciation of the American indigenoustradition.Palomo is suddenly at my side again,with drawings of costumes and diagramsof dance routines.“You see, this one here is the jaguar,”he says excitedly, pointing to the crude butskillful pencil sketches on the paper. Hisanimated descriptions of the performance tobe provoke images of a Latin-spicedChinese New Year celebration, and as Ilook over the group I find myself hopingthey all make it on that plane.Those interested in helping this talentedand motivated group of young peoplesucceed in their goal of traveling abroadand bettering their act can get in touch withMaría José González at 364-2957. I’vealready made my donation.