People collect antique coins, wristwatches, porcelain eggcups and shellac disks. Internationally acclaimed bromeliad hybridizer Chester Skotak collects plants, as well as eccentric characters.
His debut novel, entitled “Searching for Miss Fortuna: The Hunt for a Bromeliad,” is a fantastic fable, as extraordinary as the plant in question, Guzmania “Fortuna.” The Panama native with its white-tipped, brilliant red florescence is the eye-catcher on the tastefully designed jacket of the 383-page, self-published work released this fall.
Despite its lovely presentation, the comic novel is not only about bromeliads, but also about humans. To be more precise, it’s about the rare species of hunting and collecting plant enthusiasts.
An insider himself, Skotak, based in Costa Rica since 1978, knows his business, having risen among the ranks of plant enthusiasts. He arouses the reader’s curiosity with the rich allusion that his work of fiction is inspired by true events.
“This book is part of my legacy,” says the 55-year-old Texas native. “I always wanted to write a story about my experiences, so they will not be forgotten. As weirdly beautiful as my life has been, I would not change my experiences for anything, because they made it more interesting.”
Populated with offbeat characters and full of unexpected events, “Searching for Miss Fortuna” is a cross between spooky thriller, weird travel story, furious satire and interesting documentary. Enriched with factual information on the botany, geography and history of Central America, the book is a treat not only for plant lovers but also for those interested in Latin American idiosyncrasies.
The free-spirited narrator, “the Man from Florida” – Skotak’s alter ego, and his mysterious opponent – takes the reader on an unforgettable expedition across Panama, beginning and ending in Costa Rica. Filled with obsessed naturalists, zealous locals and helpful indigenous people, the novel is as colorful and bizarre as the tropical plants the author hybridizes professionally.
The gripping plot culminates as two illmatched plant hunters visit remote botanical gardens in southwestern Costa Rica. Falling under the influence of the garden’s demented director is tantamount to a hellish trip right into the heart of darkness.
Known for his wicked sense of humor, Skotak wields a sharp pen, drawing the reader into dramatic events in a quicksand of words. His comparisons and metaphors are unique, and his language teems with exaggeration and provocation: a toupee becomes a vanity rug, and coiled phone cords look like Rastafarian dreadlocks.
“Maybe it has to do with my non-authoritarian upbringing, but I think political correctness does not work,” the outspoken author explains. “It is very insulting to human intelligence.”
“Searching for Miss Fortuna” is a story within a story. The novel is an homage to famed tropical plant expert and illustrator John M. Hall III, a Florida expatriate who lived in Costa Rica for 32 years. Hall, who died in San José in 2003, was considered one of the leading authorities on the flora and fauna of Central America and the Amazon.
The skilled garden designer and the renowned bromeliad hybridizer were good friends, undertaking adventurous trips across the isthmus.
“The rescue of that cast-iron bathtub from the Nicaraguan jungle was originally John’s idea,” Skotak remembers, referring to an episode in the book.
Skotak, who claims he does not read books and has no favorite authors, says the writing process was a challenging but rewarding experience that took him four years. Surprised by his own creativity, and sometimes sleepless, he would get up in the middle of the night to type on the computer.
“My right index finger, with which I typed the entire manuscript, is still numb,” Skotak explains, lifting the corpus delicti in the air.
“But all in all, I’m very satisfied to have written this book, because I found a way to incorporate my ideas about life.”
The innovative hybridizer has been an enthusiastic plant lover since childhood. He studied floriculture at TexasA&MUniversity and was drawn to Costa Rica for the diversity of the country’s bromeliad species – hardy members of the pineapple family. Costa Rica is second only to Brazil in numbers of bromeliad genera worldwide.
Skotak has led numerous plant-collecting expeditions throughout Central and South America and has introduced countless unusual bromeliad hybrids into horticulture.
Three plant species have been named in his honor. The prolific plant expert is a member of the U.S.-based International Bromeliad Society and a contributor to the society’s magazine since 1976.
The author’s home and business are in the town of Palmares, an hour northwest of San José. He dedicated “Searching for Miss Fortuna” to his wife Lorena and their eight children, ages 12 to 23, of which six are currently attending university.
In his novel’s acknowledgments, Skotak expresses his gratitude to longtime friend and bromeliad judge Eloise Beach of Apopka, Florida, because “without her help, I could never had accomplished this.”
An avid collector, the author also honors “all of the obsessed fools who run loose on the streets, mindlessly collecting things but never understanding why… without you guys, the earth would quit wobbling.”
Where to Get a Copy
Not yet available in Costa Rica, “Searching for Miss Fortuna: The Hunt for a Bromeliad” can be purchased at bookstores in the United States and online. The softcover edition costs $19.95. A special hardcover edition – signed by the
author and limited to 50 copies – is $39.95, and can be purchased through the author’s Web site at www.chesterskotak.com.