Refuge

The power outage blacked out the entire island nearly until midnight, but that wasn’t what caused me to leave Bocas del Toro.

I admit to some nervousness, walking down the street with a thousand dollars, cash, in my pocket after one boy perched next to the ATM was shouting to friends in Spanish while others wove through the crowd on bicycles, nearly invisible in the dark.

Store and restaurant owners pulled pickup trucks up on the sidewalk, shining headlights at front doors where they were often standing, watching to make sure customers paid clerks inside who totaled charges on handheld calculators. A few stores, those with freezers, had generators that surged and rattled and illuminated bluish fluorescents.

The Policia Nacional slowly patrolled up at down the main street, occasionally turning on their red and blue overhead lights, but not getting out of their truck, not adding much to a feeling of security.

Candles were lit on tables in those places that had gas to cook, but the outage took down the community  water pumps, too, so water mains had no pressure, sinks wouldn’t wash, toilets wouldn’t flush. There would be one seating.

There was an edge to it all, a nervous energy that for some may have been intoxicating, to others intimidating.

But that wasn’t what caused me to leave Bocas.

Bocas was becoming easy. I was starting to like it, settle into a routine. I’d been there a week. Probably a couple of days too long, in fact, but if I’d left earlier I would have missed out on the ending of the Bocas story. That’s always the way it is. We don’t know what the story is about until we move past the most meaningful moments to see it in perspective.

I will remember an evening in Bocas for the rest of my life. Not the last one, when the lights went out, but the evening before, when Alycia, Olivia and I were having dinner.

I’m calling them Alycia and Olivia, because it may be important to protect their identities. I learned some things that make me want to be a little cautious about disclosing their backgrounds, especially Olivia’s. I don’t trust any form of communication any longer.

Plus, we don’t have all the letters on the keyboard to write their actual names.

I first met them at the highway bus stop outside of Quepos nearly two weeks before. They’d gone to the bus stop before they were actually going to take the bus, to see where the bus stop was, to see if the bus actually stopped there, etc. I learned that’s what Alycia does. It was beastly hot on the asphalt, they were asking questions. Olivia looked Hispanic with beautiful olive skin and black hair, Alycia was wearing the Muslim scarf, and covered.

They were an incongruous pair and smiled at me when I tried to talk to them in Spanish.

“We don’t speak Spanish,” said Olivia in accented English. “We are from Germany.”

They both laughed when I shook my head in mock confusion, opened my hands to indicate their very unGerman appearance. “We are Turkish,” said Alycia, reminding me of the deep ties between Turkey and Germany, and stories about resentment over the more recent flood of workers into Europe.

We talked for a couple of minutes, I learned they were going to Bahia Drake. I was going to Boquete. Adios.

Looking back it seems absurdly coincidental that they would be at that bus stop and eight days later we would run into each other in another city, in another country. But that’s the way it is on the road. After a while you don’t even question it.

It was still a surprise when I saw them walking in Bocas. Despite a building fever and my head feeling like an inflating hot air balloon, I’d gone out for a walk and something to eat, I saw and recognized them, said “hi.” We went into The Pirate, a restaurant on the water, and we talked for an hour. They told me about traveling through Europe and Africa.

They are doctors. Alycia is an internist at a community hospital, Olivia a cardiologist specializing in atrial fibrillation at a teaching hospital. They live in Hamburg, Olivia “in” the city, Alycia closer to her family in a surrounding area. They asked what I did and we talked about that. I asked, “where are the boyfriends?” expecting to hear about boyfriends were back in Germany.

“That’s just what we were asking ourselves!” said Olivia, and Alycia laughed her silent laugh and nodded her head. Their plans were fluid, but they wanted to go out to the outer islands, maybe to the cave hidden deep in the mangroves, maybe to Red Frog beach. Those were on my schedule too, I gave them my contact info because the manager of my hotel was setting up these tours up and he made it easy.

I didn’t hear from them in the morning, though, but felt like crap anyway, sweats alternated with naps, and wrote them that the next day might work out better. Outside my window a family, or three families, lived in buildings ten feet wide. The end building looked like it was thrown together under the eaves of the middle space, which was open to the street except for a blue tarp stretched across what would have been a wall. I winced every time I watched barefoot children, either the four year-olds or one of the toddlers, pick their way through shattered concrete blocks piled across the entry. Not once did anyone try to clear a path.

As evening rolled around, I went out to get something to eat. I was talking to Avi’s friend Ben at a local gathering place when Avi called me to ask if I would join Valerie and a few others as she trained new conservation guides at the turtle nesting beach. It would last until midnight and we’d meet in an hour.

I went back to my room to dress in black so as not to spook the turtles, take not nearly enough Tylenol to break the fever, and pack water. We saw a nest, but no leatherbacks up on the sand.

When I got back, I had an email from Olivia, she had just gotten my note and wondered if the next day would still work out for a trip. Yes, I wrote back.

At dawn, rain pounded on the steel roof of the hotel, floated trash in the streets. I wondered if that’s where the bones I saw in the water at the port came from. Obviously the day’s trip was off, but I kept postponing until the sun began to break through. Though he did not like the direction of the wind, Avi called the dive office to see what conditions were like.

“It is perfect. You will have an amazing trip,” he said, “amazing” a word he uses frequently that indicates the color of his world.

It was just the three of us in the Panga, now a private tour. I turned to Alycia and said, “Since you’re the one who plans everything, is there something you want to do first?”

“Dolphins. I want to see the dolphins,” she said, enthusiasm childlike. She held her hijab, or scarf, to her head with one hand to keep it from blowing in the wind. Olivia smiled and nodded, wind blowing through her hair.

Our boatman found a pod of dolphins in aptly named Dolphin Bay, a huge flat expanse of water bounded by mangroves. Roots descended from branches and laced into the mud like an ominous aquatic fence. He slowed the boat just enough to create a large wake, inducing dolphins to jump and play 20 feet from the stern of the Panga. We laughed in delight.

When we got to Zapatillo, I asked if there was anything I could do to make it easier for Alycia to enjoy the water, I was willing to go to the other side of the island if need be, though there were enough people, my presence would not have made any difference.

She said no, though she had clothes for swimming, she didn’t really feel like going in the water. She lay in the shade of a perfect palm on the perfect beach on this perfect island while Olivia and I put on masks and paddled at the edge of sand and reef for an hour. Alycia got up once and looked out to where Olivia and I had been before a gentle rip carried us down the shore. When she turned in our direction I waved, she saw me and waved back, then went back to sit in the shade.

Sunlight brightened orange and yellow fish, red and green corals, in water so clear it could have been bottled. Several times, Olivia rolled to her back, mask in her hand, arms out, just drifting in the warmth of Caribbean salt water, eyes closed. Floating.

Alycia embraced the day from her place on the beach. Her modesty of behavior, manners, speech and appearance never dampened her thoughtful honestly, intelligence, ability to laugh. She didn’t use her faith as a shield against ideas that differed from her own. When I asked how she could be so non judgemental, she said she did not know enough about anyone else to judge them.

I pressed a bit, how did she avoid disapproval of those not adhering to her standards? She said again it wasn’t her job to focus on others but to care for others, a belief rooted almost as deeply in the culture of her parent’s village in Turkey as in Islam. She was as charitable and giving, and forgiving, as anyone of any faith, anywhere.

“My mother would buy a large car, not to have a large car but because she just assumed we would do things as a family, and her friends and our neighbors would have needs as well.” Alycia’s family had been poor, as well as Sunni, in Germany. Her father immigrated first, met her mother who happened to be from a village not far from his own.

“We had everything we needed, and if we did not have have something, we made do with something else and it was just as good. This is another reason why I am the way I am,” she said.

“Everything’s always good for her!” exclaimed Olivia.

Alycia was the one who planned their vacations down to the most minute detail, and then checked everything three times wherever they were on the road. What she was doing two weeks before when we met on the road in Costa Rica.

Olivia and I teased Alycia a little about checking and rechecking and rechecking. And Alycia laughed with us, but then had the last laugh. The evening before they were to leave Bocas on a shuttle to San Jose, she walked them by the shuttle office, where she found out they were not going to be picked up at their hotel as they’d been told. They had to be at the boat dock.

They would have missed their ride, maybe the plane back to Germany. But this is Alycia, so of course she had a “Plan B,” and probably a “Plan C,” one of which may have been to catch a flight from the Bocas airport to San Jose. If plans change and she has make adjustments, she does, and doesn’t mind.

I asked if her personality, her tendency to want everything managed, came from her faith, or had drawn her to her faith. “I think my faith and my character compliment each other,” she said with a smile, avoiding my trap.

I sat in the bow on the way to lunch. The restaurant was built on stilts well out into the clear water of the bay. We saw starfish five feet down in crystal clear water, a sloth hanging from the branches, it was hard to see, like a basketball caught in the net. Sitting side by side in the middle row seats, Alycia looked about trying to absorb every detail, one hand holding the scarf to her head; Olivia closed her eyes, imagined she was flying as wind blew threw her luxurious black hair.

Back at the dock we sat and talked. At some point the conversation rolled around to what they would be doing when they got back. Olivia was not looking forward to the 70 hour weeks, a presentation in Berlin in April and another in San Francisco in May. Seventy hours?! I asked. That is her average week, she said.

Alycia nodded her head and looked at Olivia with love and compassion. The 12 hour days, six days a week, often dealing with life and death decisions, were taking a toll.

“I wonder at times,” she said, pointing to laugh lines at the corners of her lovely eyes.

They talked about the ten years of doing this before there might be a break. Alycia said at one point that Olivia was giving up ten most important years for an uncertain outcome. I asked what the goal was.

Olivia said that it was important not to give up, that others were working just as hard. I said she could be anywhere in the world, doing nearly anything she wanted. She kept returning to a vagueness about not giving up, not disappointing others. I asked who would be disappointed and she acknowledged everyone she knew was telling her the same thing, and so would her father.

It was a fascinating shift, Alycia in her scarf advocating for less rigidity, fewer dictates, more personal happiness or satisfaction; Olivia describing the need to do things because she should. It wasn’t until the next evening I would discover why.

“Why do you do it?” I asked.

“What do you mean?”

“70 hours? That’s about 12 hours a day, six days a week. That doesn’t leave any time to have much of a life.”

“Maybe that’s why I don’t have much of a life,” she said with a half-laugh.

Alycia nodded and said, “My life is not too easy, but not nearly as difficult as Olivia’s. I have more time off.”

It seemed incongruous. The conservative, observant Muslim who wore a scarf and did not go in the water at the beach a few hours before, had it ‘easier’ (stupidly inadequate word) than this woman who wore bright sundresses over a lithe body and floated, hands out and eyes closed, supported by the warm salt water for minutes at a time; who sat with her eyes closed facing forward as the boat raced and wind blew past her face and through her hair, imagining she was flying.

I admit these images colored my reaction. I admit I thought 70 hours of work per week was an especially high cost for a woman of her youth and beauty, even a research cardiologist at a teaching hospital.

But I also gained momentum from Alycia when I asked why she wasn’t participating in the conversation, and she said, “Olivia and I have had this conversation many times. I am thinking it is good for Olivia to hear this from somebody else.”

“Why do you do this?” I asked again.

“Others do this. My advisor does this. Other doctors do this.”

“Are they just like you? Do they like to dance like you do?” I’d earlier confessed I danced to music as if possessed, that I’d left a woman who told me to stop dancing and act my age, that I planned to dance all the way to my grave. Her face had lit and she exclaimed “I love to dance!”

“Do we know if ‘doing this’ makes them any happier than it makes you? What’s the goal?” I asked.

“My plan was to do this for ten years. Then it should not be so bad.”

“I tell her she is using up the most important time of her life!” Alycia said.

“Do others who have done this for 10 years have it easier?” I asked.

Olivia grew sad, and shook her head. “I can’t just quit. It would be such a disappointment.”

“To whom?!” I asked. “What do your mother and brother say? What would your father say?”

“They say they want me to be happy. My father would tell me to be happy.”

“Does the 70 hours you will work next week make you happy?”

“I love my work. 40 hours of my work every week would be perfect,” she said.

Alycia looked at Olivia with such compassion, it startled me. Several times already I had seen what I could only describe as unconditional  love and acceptance.

The next day our guide, a different one, pushed us too fast. He used his motor when he should have used an oar. The guide in the boat in front of him put his fingers to his lips once to tell him to be quiet. We followed the meanders through the mangrove to the small dock. There were three dugouts hauled up on the mud, and a few huts a little further into the jungle. God, it sounds so pretentious to write something like that, but what do you do when it’s true?

We crowded another group that arrived at the mangrove entrance just before we did. I think the other guides teased him about wanting to be first.

At the cave we wandered through passages where the water was cool, and chest deep. The rocks were slimy with either mud or some sort of growth. I was at the end of the pack, there was a group of Spanish and Germans ahead of us.

My favorite were the bats flying about, squeaking to find out where everybody was standing, resolving all those squeaks bouncing off bodies and cave walls while in fast flight. The mud was red, my white shirt, the only color I have since I shipped everything else home, was a mistake. Our young guide kept pushing us forward. I finally told him to back off, there was no room to advance because of the party in front of us.

Alycia stayed back, coming only about half way. It would be a bit of a drag wearing all that wet. Plus, she was wary of things like stagnant standing water, mosquitoes, etc. maybe especially since Olivia contracted malaria when they were in Africa last year or the year before. The cave was good enough, but not spectacular. I’ve wandered the lava tubes around home, also a land of volcanos.

We motored past beautiful sailboats coming in to Red Frog beach. Some were of deeply varnished wood and polished brass; catamarans of shiny white, meticulously clean fiberglass, and one megayacht, incongruously named “Secret.” There is no way I can imagine to hide a secret spoken so loud, but the world’s a big place.

“Join me for lunch on my runabout?” I asked Alycia and Olivia, waving nonchalantly at “Secret,” getting the hoped for laugh.

We wandered up and down the wide gravel road to Red Frog Beach, went up the wooden walk way and then scrambled a ways up a leafy and somewhat slick slope, Alycia wanting  to get a photo of a red frog. No luck.

Alycia and Olivia stayed on the sand, I body surfed and tried unsuccessfully to wash cave mud from my white shirt in the waves. Our allotted hour and a half over, we banged our way through the chop in the fiberglass Panga back to the hotel, found a store that sold local chocolate and agreed to meet at six for dinner.

That’s where I would hear a story that both pained and filled my heart, at the very same time.

I’d changed into the black shirt and black shorts and smiled that I’d worn “both” of my “out-on-the-town” outfits in five days. Alycia said to just walk the length of the street in front of my hotel until it ended, I would run into theirs. It took longer than I thought.

As we walked back toward the restaurant, I made a comment that Alycia must have booked a hotel close to the airfield just in case they missed the boat. No, it wasn’t near any airport, they both said, though it is near the soccer field. I walked them back the way I had come.

“I get that you might have missed the runway lights, but the control tower? The planes?” I pointed past the soccer players. Olivia laughed when she saw a plane and realized how many times they’d walked past without noticing. Granted, the “control tower” wasn’t much over 30 feet high.

The small restaurant where we had dinner was rough, chairs on a mostly dirt and sand floor, the front door a section of garden lathe leaning up against the fence. But the food had been great when Avi and Valerie let me take them to dinner there. I was in the mood for good food rather than spending more for tourist fare than it was worth, even with a table on the water. Alycia was quiet but said she would perk up once she had eaten.

At some point, it came up that they would not likely share their next vacation. Alycia planned to do short trips in southern France or Italy, Olivia planned to return to the place where her family came from in Turkey. Southeastern Turkey. Near the Turkey, Iranian, and Syrian borders. That’s a dangerous place, I said. She said something else, then said, these are my people, “I am Kurdish.”

Olivia was three when her father disappeared the first time, her little brother was one. Apparently her father, a teacher, had taught or written an article or pamphlet that rebuted a claim by Attaturk that all of of the people in Turkey were Turks. Actually, Olivia’s father wrote, there were several ethnic groups, including Kurds, in Turkey.

They came for him. They took him. They didn’t release him until months later.

That happened more than once. Then, on the first day of school when she was about six, her father took her to school, presenting her for her education, she remembers.

“This is my daughter, she is here and ready to learn,” I think she said of that day, the day he fled to Germany the first time, in fear of his life. He was gone for years.

Olivia remembers living at her grandfather’s house between the front lines of proTurkey fighters and what I assumed were the PKK, Kurdish independence fighters. She remembered bullets coming from both directions.

Her father returned to his family. His own parents wanted him to take over their farm, be prosperous as they were, and to be quiet. But her father was an idealist, with his own passions, unable to hide those passions in classrooms where he taught. Children tell stories to their parents, parents tell others. After a year he left once again, probably for his life. When Olivia was 13 or so, her mother moved with her two children to join her husband in Germany.

“I was not an easy child,” Olivia said. “I told her I did not want to go. I told her I did not want to trade the many I knew and loved in Turkey for one I barely knew in Germany.”

They moved, nonetheless. But six months after they arrived, maybe a year, her father was diagnosed with cancer. He had months to live. Olivia wondered, again, what was the point. They had lost him, found him, lost him, found him, and now were going to lose him forever.

But her father was not yet finished.

“He would talk to me, late into the night,” she said. “Every night, every chance he could. I would say, ‘stop! I can’t hear another word!’ But he wouldn’t stop, he would just say that when I needed it, I would remember these things he had to say.”

“He was trying to pour everything he knew into you, trying to make up for lost time?” I asked.

“Yes, I think that is true.”

“You said you were angry when you had to go to Germany for a stranger, but you have said you loved your father. When did your anger change to love?”

“I think it happened over time, while he was alive and after, when I began to realize what I meant to him.”

“As a man probably about your father’s age, and a father, I can only imagine the urgency he felt,” I said. “His need to make up for lost time, past and future. My guess is that he felt like he wanted to open your head and pour everything he knew inside.”

“Yes. My mother was angry. ‘What about me?’ she said. But still my father talked to me, constantly, about anything, about everything. He told my little brother to ask me questions after he was gone, to learn what he needed from me.

“Maybe that’s why he stays so close,” Olivia said this last with a laugh to Alycia, who laughed with her in turn.

“I don’t know why he did not talk that much my mother, so she could tell me and my brother.”

“Because he wanted you to hear it from him, he wanted to know it had been said to you in the way he wanted to say it. Your mother might have left something out, or filtered it in some way,” I said.

“Yes, I think that may be true,” she agreed after a moment.

“Olivia, have you ever talked to anyone about PTSD?”

“What is that?” she asked.

“Post Traumatic Stress.”

“Why? I do not have that, I do not dwell on these things.”

“She does not,” added Alycia. “Olivia is not one who cries, ‘look at me, look at how sad I deserve to be.’ ”

Olivia’s mother, who did not remarry, was or is a draftsman, later a designer or draftsman for aeronautical parts. “She is a very strong woman,” Olivia said.

“Do you think your experience as a child has anything to do with your feeling that if you are not perfect, constantly trying, then you will have failed, disappointed others?” I asked.

“I don’t know what you mean,” she said.

We left the restaurant to get a cola nightcap elsewhere in town. A somewhat attractive, possibly inebriated woman was sitting in a chair just inside of the restaurant, maybe waiting for an order to go, maybe waiting to go with an employee after the restaurant had closed.

The woman looked for a moment at Alycia and her scarf, a moment at me, then did not take her eyes off Olivia all the way to the door.

It was dark, warm and humid when we got to the street. I was glad Alycia and Olivia did not seem ready for the evening to end,  I certainly was not. We walked 500 meters along the street outside.

A very stoned, handsome surfer was walking the other way in a group. I watched his eyes lock onto Olivia. As he walked past, his head turned nearly 180 degrees, completely oblivious to the fact I’d turned to look at him. Ten steps later, after all the synapses in his brain decided to pull in the same direction, I heard him call out “You are SO beautiful!”

We found a cola in another restaurant, after leaving one where the service was so poor I did not want to give them a dime (no coincidence, it was part of the hotel where I spent my first night in Bocas). Alycia talked about knowing she was loved, the sense of security.

“Neither of you drink?” I asked.

“No no,” said Alycia, a smile at the obviousness of her answer. “I don’t at all, but Olivia will have a glass of wine. Though she never gets drunk.”

“Not when I am with you!” said Olivia, with a bright laugh.

It was not always easy being a “woman of ethnicity” in Germany, even in the medical profession. Bigotry was not overt, and rarely from patients regarding the quality of care, but there could be “differences.” Olivia did not necessarily believe in a Kurdistan, though she may have been avoiding the topic. Alycia laughed when she said her mother liked that she traveled, but would not want her to be “any more selfish.”

“What about YOU?” Olivia asked at one point. I said I had not had a drink in decades, but she said, no, what about my life, where did I come from?

I confessed to a somewhat difficult childhood, an abusive father and mother disabled by booze, but was not about to go into detail after what I’d heard from her. I deflected to talking about children, our need to feel connected.

“I can’t believe at times how indifferent the world can be, how things like politics and power can be so disruptive or destructive. All your father wanted was to tell what he thought was the truth,” I said. “Look what that did to your family.”

We talked a little about romantic love. Olivia said it doesn’t last, something I’ve heard from others.

“Yes, but maybe being ‘in love’ is replaced by true love,” I said.

When asked, Alycia said something about loving someone for the right reasons, for what they could bring the family, and it seemed, the community. “You can learn to love the right person,” she said at last.

“That sounds like you’re buying a HOUSE!” said Olivia.

“I think she meant loving someone, as opposed to falling in love,” I said.

“Yes, but still!” Olivia said.

Olivia had been in love, it ended, she was not going to go into detail besides saying he was incredibly handsome, and sophisticated. She may have fallen out of love after a year, but it lasted too long until it was actually over.

He had reached for her as she pushed him away, he may have promised anything and everything, which she said would have just deprived him of respect. She was Turkish, she said, which she equated with a state of constant heartbreak.

“Maybe I am Turkish too,” I said, and we all laughed. “I often wonder ‘where is my companion?’ I wonder if I didn’t try hard enough, or if I tried too hard.”

“Olivia, how many times have you told that story, the one from tonight?” I asked.

She shrugged, said maybe pieces to her boyfriends, maybe a few times, if not in this detail. Alycia said she’d never heard it in this much detail.

“Why?” she asked.

“Because I want to thank you, for sharing what I can only imagine was your father’s ache to make up for lost time, and for time lost. His love for you, his sense of near panic to communicate who he was. The sacrifice and the loss is both so painful, and so beautiful.”

“That is what I came to understand,” she said. “What I meant to him. That’s when I knew I loved him.”

“Did you tell him? I asked.

“Yes, at the end. He said I didn’t need to say, he knew it.”

I walked them back to their hotel. It took 10 or 15 minutes. Somewhere on that walk, Alycia said something nice about when we first met, at the bus stop, for two minutes or so, two weeks before.

“I told Olivia then, here was someone interesting, someone we could travel with, if we were going the same places,” Alycia said, Olivia nodded. Her saying that gave me a deep joy, but I never trust my own emotions.

I shook hands first with Alycia, then shook hands with Olivia.

“You need to see the Pacific Northwest,” I said. “It’s my backyard. I’d love to show you around.”

They walked into their hotel, I walked down the long dark street to mine. On the way, I tried to take a picture of the partial skeleton of some sort of creature that was lying at the bottom of the deep gutter that ran in front of the houses and out into the sea.

For all our sophistication, for all our wonderful words and grand edifices, we remain such a primitive species.

I didn’t leave Bocas the next day, as I’d planned. Now I had to digest a father’s immense but truncated love for his daughter and his family, wondering how he dealt with leaving them for years, if he was torn between patriotism and love, the sacrifices his ideas demanded from him and from those, like his Olivia, who had not chosen the battle, how that may have created a fear that if she stopped striving, she would be overtaken by the chaos that first enveloped a child only three years old.

All this contrasted with Alycia’s calm certainty that doing the right thing was the right thing to do, knowing she was loved and the comfort that brought, within a faith that controlled as it sustained, without any sense of deprivation.

When these thoughts had been put in their proper place, in my heart if not completely understood, it would be time to leave. To stay longer would have been to risk all this beginning to dissipate, something I did not want to happen.

I was working on all this when I heard him, before I saw him. I was drinking a coffee, meditating out over the water, sailboats boats rhythmically swaying in the marina, and further out, at anchor. Morning light threw everything into stark relief, it was not yet too hot and there wasn’t yet the droning pulsation of outboards as water taxis dove through their own wake.

The moment  was interrupted by a high pitched, demanding voice that dripped with condescension: ”A single shot. Then you steam the milk and put it on top. Can you understand that? Can you understand anything? Not a full cup!”

When the Panamanian woman put the cup on the counter, he said, “Oh, shit! Nevermind!”  and left it in front of her, stormed past my table to sit on the bench right in my view of the sailboats.

He struggled to find a lighter in his pocket, tore at a pack of Marlboros until he got one to his mouth, lit it and sucked down the smoke while glaring out at the day, his head jerking about as if on alert against threat.

I know it didn’t help my attitude that I got full face of his second hand smoke.

Another bird. Angry Bird. His eyes were intense, his motions uneven, what appeared to be a constant state of anger had stripped every ounce of fat from his body. His veins and arteries layered over his legs and arms as if they were on the outside of his body, the skin was drawn back tight against his downturned grimace of a mouth, longish white hair going everywhere.

Angry Bird could have been any age between 55 and 75. His voice was pitched high and came out with a drawl. I don’t know Southern inflections so I couldn’t tell if it was Texas or Georgia or someplace in between. All I knew was that it was an amplified screech of fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

Eventually he was joined by a woman 20 or 30 years younger. She too lit a cigarette, and they sat silently looking out over the water. He picked up a magazine and put it down, picked it up and put it down, not finding any absence of self. She asked him something I could not hear, but his reply was loud enough for everyone to hear.

“There’s no point. They can’t make a simple latte without ruining the whole damn thing!”

His feet tapped a ceaseless rhythm, or when he had his legs crossed, the suspended foot jerked up and down, as if keeping time to a drumbeat. He didn’t tap ash from his cigarette, he threw it from his cigarette and sometimes it landed in the ashtray.

When another Panamanian woman came to work the counter, he gave it another try. This time carried the cup to a table, poured sugar into the cup and attacked the mixture with a spoon. He poured some of the coffee into the saucer from which he loudly slurped, bent over so the spill went to the table instead of his lap.

He did that twice, left the saucer and carried the cup over to where his companion sat in the sun, tried to light another cigarette but had trouble with cup, lighter, cigarette pack until his girlfriend said, “Here, let me help.”

One more sip and Angry Bird stood, took the cup over to the table he had now trashed with spilled coffee and empty sugar packets, used the saucer he drank from as an ashtray, left the cup and went back and picked up his magazine.

“It has no flavor. They put in too much water,” he said. Girlfriend got up and brought him back a Coke.

“Do you want to go someplace today? Girlfriend asked. “We’d have to go early, I know you can’t be out in the heat.” Angry Bird growled a reply I could not hear.

“Nobody could stand being out in this heat for long,” she amended.

At some point, Avi took over from his staff all care of this man and his girlfriend, asking every 15 minutes if there was something they needed, something he could get them.

There was generally a pinwheel of activity at the restaurant that ended in a dock over the bay, people coming through to take tours, surfers loading boards on Pangas, locals or near locals gathered for lunch, and a mix of languages, with English not the most common. Angry Bird scowled and looked out over the bay.

Avi was once on the phone speaking Hebrew to a friend or business associate. Many in Bocas are from Israel. When he clicked off, Angry Bird asked, “What language was that you were speaking?”

“That was Hebrew,” Avi said.

“Is that like Yiddish?”

Avi gave an explanation of the difference, most of which Angry Bird did not seem interested in. When he stood up a little later, he banged his head on the TV that hung from the post over the table. It was a good thwack and made my head hurt just from the sound.

He sat right back down, rubbing his head from the pain, glowered up at the TV, looked down at the table. When his girlfriend asked if he was alright, he said he should have just stayed home, where he knew where everything was.

Later he asked Avi where there was a good restaurant, and when Avi wrote out his list, as he had done for me and for others, Angry Bird asked if Avi would go with them.

“I don’t speak the language. What would you think about coming along and helping us out?”

“Of course, I would like very much to do this,” said Avi.

When I complimented Avi for his professionalism and patience, Avi said, “There is always a story. If I react in the wrong way, it is on me, it would poison my whole day. I choose not to let that happen.” I wanted to ask how long Angry Bird planned to stay at the hotel, but knew they had as much right to be there as me.

Then the lights went out in Bocas. The entire island was dark. Avi taped flashlights in the hotel hallways and to posts on the deck for the guests. I went to get the cash I needed to pay my bill from the ATM at the bank on the other side of town.

While I was gone, Angry Bird managed to bring out an iPad or something, a music player of some sort, and for everyone’s enjoyment played an assortment of his favorite songs from the 70s and 80s, and of course there was Country.

He and his girlfriend got good and drunk, began to start conversations with everyone else, regardless of how far away they were sitting. If that was across the deck, Angry Bird and girlfriend just raised their voices. If the other person was from Boston, they talked about the bombing at the Boston Marathon. If they were from New York, it was the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

They didn’t have much to say to me, I was from Oregon, nothing much happens there and I didn’t much encourage the exchange.

So, even though the lights went out in Bocas, that had nothing to do with my decision to leave. It was just time to go.

Lovers

The boys aggressively pushing forward to help carry backpacks at the terminal in Almirante put me a little on edge. They don’t ask if you’d like help; they ask where you are going as they reach into the back of the shuttle to take your bag.

Often it works, and when someone answers “Bocas del Toro,” the boys shoulder the bags and carry them to the water taxi.

Of course, they expect to be rewarded, which often leads to fumbling with bags and wallets or stammering from people who did not understand the boys were not part of the shuttle or terminal operation.

No, gracias,” I said, when asked.

Is this your bag?” the boy persisted, reaching toward my backpack.

I reached past him and grabbed the handle, so now I had my daypack on my shoulders and my backpack in my hand.

I’ve got this,” I said to him in a tone that made it clear I intended to carry my own bag. This earned me a glare that lasted a couple of seconds before he picked on the next person in line.

Maybe it was the boys at the terminal, or maybe it was the grittiness of Bocas del Toro that made me check in to the first hotel I came to, even though the room rate was almost three times what I had been paying. Or maybe it was just the rain. It had rained since we crossed over the mountains of Panama from the Pacific to the Caribbean.

Whatever it was, I did not feel like wandering the streets with backpack and daypack looking for a place to stay. A tall man in a peach colored polo was walking in the same direction. I asked him if he knew of a good hotel.

The Hotel Limbo,” he said, pointing about ten feet behind me. I went in and secured a room just to have one, at $90.

It could have been the blood sugar blues, too. I had eaten nothing but a muffin when I got on the bus four or five hours before in Boquete. The prices were too high at the restaurant that was part of my hotel, I wandered a couple of doors down and bought the $5 special of chicken, beans and rice.

There was a young woman reading a book in French. She was staying in a hostel for about $20. An engineer, she worked as a management consultant, but learned about empowerment, and the desire of people to do a good job and be recognized, from her stint as an electrical engineer for G.E.

The consulting business attracts the kind of people who are motivated by advancement, money, status, and subvert their immediate gratification for these goals. Consequently they don’t do a great job of motivating middle management or lower level employees.

We are great at systems. We suck at implementation,” she said.

Teaching the CEO is “delicate.” They are almost always very strong personalities. “If we are selling other services to their company, such as systems redesign, we have to be careful telling a CEO, who is frequently the source of the problems or the corporate ‘culture,’ that his leadership or motivational skills need to improve.”

It was fun sharing philosophies with Madeleine, but she was headed out of Bocas and I was headed in. We said goodbye and I wandered the loop that wrapped the peninsula. I came upon a brightly colored building with a long hallway of polished wood and a breeze blowing through. I walked down to the front desk where a young man sat before a ledger.

No, I have no space today or tomorrow, but yes, the next day. But if you can come in tomorrow, I may have someone cancel. Please, come in now and have a coffee. No charge,” he said, in a thick accent I thought I recognized.

This felt so much better than the somewhat surly service I had at my hotel, where I got short changed $1 after paying $2 plus tax for a coke. I came in, sat down and had coffee and looked out over the water at sailboats swaying in the water. My day was getting better.

I had Madras chicken and listened to music at a restaurant on the main street over the water. Two girls, one just like one of my daughters, even dressed the same and with a similar haircut, were holding hands. The duo playing music was great, even though competing in volume with a drunk American and his drunk wife who were hustling another American considering building a home in Bocas.

The husband and wife alternated putting the pressure on.

I am on the job every day!” said the wife. “24 / 7! I do all of the accounting, and the books are always current!  I do all the books of all the projects, each and every day!”

Once those guys feel that they have earned the amount of money you’ve paid them, they stop work until you give them more. It doesn’t matter what’s written in a contract,” said her husband. “We know what’s what.”

The husband  kept getting up and talking to the two musicians, even while they were playing, putting his hand on their shoulders, asserting some sort of camaraderie, musicianhood, maybe, maybe he played once in a while when he wasn’t building houses or drinking red wine.

I’m not an alcoholic,” he said at one point, loudly to make sure it was understood. He said he drank every day, but only one or two in the morning so he could deal with the pain of his hip or back, but that was it, until evening. His wife said “I’m an alcoholic. I love my wine,” but then laughed and talked about her self control and said, again, that she did all the books of all the projects, each and every day.

The Friday night street was a scene below my window. It went to well after midnight. Crowds walking talking, having fun. Bocas on the Caribbean was very different than Boquete in the mountains. The next morning, Bocas was slow to wake up, the street quiet until well after 7:30.

I checked out of my hotel and wandered over to Hotel Rega, where the manager I’d met the day before told me that he still didn’t have a room. I asked if I could leave my bag behind the reception desk while waiting to see if he’d have a cancellation.

Of course,” he said. “And have coffee. No charge! You are already a guest!”

I sat at a table and drank coffee, got into a conversation with the manager, Avi, and his girlfriend, Valerie. Valerie looked and sounded like she was raised in a suburb of Seattle, but she was Costa Rican by birth, from a successful family with farms in Costa Rica and Panama. She had gotten her undergrad degree in the U.S., her degree in environmental science in Costa Rica, which was wonderful for the diversity of students.

Valerie had written a proposal to do a study on elephants in Africa that had been accepted, and she had gone. The experience changed her, others had told her she needed to write a book. She told me she couldn’t imagine the immensity of writing a book. I showed her how to break it down into manageable parts.

We discussed the concept: “What if a young woman goes to Africa to learn about animals, discovers the animal within her self then learns to let go?”

Valerie, that’s an incredibly strong concept,” I said. “What happened while you were there?”

There was a monkey living in my bathroom! I discovered I only had 9 weeks to do the project instead of many months. I fell in love, my old boyfriend showed up in Nairobi and it was ugly.”

Valerie, you have a book.”

But I don’t want it to be about me, I want it to be about the wonderful women I met, about Africa!”

Get over that. By writing about you, you’ll give people a reason to read about the other. It’s all about story,” I tell her. We diagrammed her book based just on what we had discussed. She seemed surprised and grateful it could be doable.

Avi talked about an inability to concentrate, until he decided to do research. He learned at a workshop how to focus on the triangle of his upper lip, and said that when he wore glasses, even those without lenses, his ability to concentrate improved, though was often limited to 45 minutes. He talked of numbers from the Jewish tradition, three, five, seven, eight.

There was something very magical about the number eight, he said, and told a story of riding a bicycle very slowly in a figure eight pattern, returning to center, turning left and right, returning to center. I wondered if there might be a left-brain, right brain connection.

Valerie said something about my going with them to dinner. I said I needed to find a hotel. Avi paused, said something to Valerie, she said something to him, and Avi turned to me.

You are staying here tonight,” Avi said. “I am going to stay with Valerie, you will stay in my room.”

You have the best room in the hotel!” Valerie said.

I don’t know what to say.”

Just say yes,” said Avi.

Will you two be my guests for dinner, then?” I asked. They agreed.

Avi, baby, I have to go to work,” said Valerie, getting up from the table.

Why, what do you have to do?” said Avi, in his thick Israeli accent.

I have to open the booth, I want to talk to …” someone whose name I could not understand.

Let’s go for a swim first,” said Avi, holding on to every moment he could spend with her. He was sitting in a chair, she stood beside him, her arm was across his shoulder, his arm completely encircled her tiny waist. Neither wanted to let go.

I will put my feet in the water,” she said, and they walked to the end of the restaurant which ended at a dock on the bay, not wanting to be apart, not wanting to not be touching.

After Valerie went to work, Avi said they had only been “together,’ for a short time. He loved her, he said, but he wasn’t going to be in Bocas much longer. He didn’t know if he needed to be with someone who spoke Hebrew as their native language, he wanted to travel, he just didn’t know.

The fish at dinner was excellent, a full filet breaded and served with plantains prepared and served like French fries, with the unique hot sauce that’s on every table here called Bocas Hot Sauce, a pale yellow I was at first reluctant to use but quite hot and rich and good. The family that owns the restaurant is Colombian, the one waitress harried as she attempted to get everyone served before closing.

There was supposed to be music but it was more of a disco and empty, soafter Avi went back to do the books at the hotel, Valerie and I went looking for a band or something. We sat in a bar where older Expats were the musicians, god they’re playing the Doors, I said, and badly.

She told me that she and Avi fought about the future, had broken up about it and then gotten back together several times. Biology kept pushing them together, pragmatics kept driving them apart.

I finally decided just to accept this for what it is, for as long as it is,” she said. “I love him. I know he loves me. But he can’t commit, and he’s leaving. I may go down to southern Costa Rica and work on environmental concerns for a Canadian mining company that could just ruin a pristine environment.”

But there were tradeoffs, even to doing good.

The people will sell their land, spend all the money in five years and will never be able to purchase it back again. I just don’t know if I can be part of that,” she said.

Currently she is in Bocas to help create a program that will protect turtles nesting along the Caribbean shore. Valerie is trying to keep poachers from taking turtle eggs, killing turtles for meat, or guiding illegal tours at night to the beaches where turtles lay their eggs and shining giant spotlights on the process, driving the turtles back to the ocean, those eggs forever lost.

The job here with the turtles is over in a few months, but I could stay on.”

Valerie is smart, honest, real, very aware of her passion but not controlled by it. “For the longest time, he wouldn’t kiss me,” she said. Looking at her, I wondered how he could avoid it. We considered for a moment how much of his ambivalence was caused by being raised on a kibbutz.

Avi told her once that he may settle down someday “when some woman makes me.”

That’s so much the wrong reason,” she says. “He needs to want to settle down, or it won’t work.”

Men especially are not very good at deciding between less bad options,” I say, “but that’s what life often presents.”  I said something about studies showing we value what we might lose at twice the value of what we gain, even if it’s the same thing.

I give her an example of a woman who has to choose between a career and raising children. Whichever option she does not choose doubles in emotional value as she contemplates its loss, so she vacillates, stuck in a vibration between the choices as each loss doubles or halves in value in turn.

Avi may be pinned between losing you or losing what he has envisioned.”

I don’t know that I can stay in Bocas after Avi leaves,” she says. “He doesn’t know what he wants or what he’s going to do. That was the source of most of our fights. I finally just decided to enjoy him while he was here,” Valerie said.

There are so few people she can talk to, here, so many of the people are expats from the U.S. like those in this bar who sing 60s and 70s and 80s Rock & Roll into microphones at the bar, bellies distended from booze or bodies shriveled skinny and brown, like untreated leather left too long in the sun.

It’s surprising how many rivers flow out of the mountains of Panama. Unlike Costa Rica, where the water was as green as the vegetation that came right to river’s edge, maybe the result of chemicals used to grow African Palms for oil that goes into everything on the shelves of Costco, on this side of Panama the cascades and meanders are remarkably clear.

Air, when it moves at all, is a caress rather than a cooling. Somehow the water and humidity and sun of the Caribbean promote a languid approach. Knowing that railings can be painted tomorrow but will continue to rust, termites poisoned tomorrow will again find soft wood at the side of the stairs, garbage might be collected but the mayor took the money to buy a castle in Spain, causes a sense of futility.

The fever of a small cold picked up a couple of days before made it hard to tell if I was woozy from sun reflecting off the water and getting under the brim of my hat, or if humidity was causing the extra sweat as I paddled the kayak against the slight wind and current. I didn’t find the boat I was told was supposed to sink in a couple of days.

Or I found two of them, I wasn’t sure. Each listed to port, each was built of steel, judging from rust-red streaks down their neglected hulls. Several ports (windows) were lacking glass in one boat, a window in the transom to the aft cabin glistened with cracks radiating out from an impact point in the thick glass. I heard it had been stolen, raided at least twice by thieves, and everyone knew it was about to go under but no one was in charge of it here in Bocas.

I paddled to the marina to see the perfect boat with a “For sale cheap only to Erik” sign hanging over the expansive, shaded cockpit. It must have been out for the day. The heat was even more intense; any breeze that wafted over open water was trapped here, still, among the mangroves. From the bar, I heard the high, loud laughter of a woman who had Bloody Mary’s for breakfast, marked by that note of hysteria from recognition of self-induced chaos. Maybe I should blame the fever for what I heard, rather than what she thinks she meant.

Valerie tells Avi to invite me on a final test run for two new guides she is training to do tours of the turtle nesting beach. I shouldn’t go, the fever makes it hard to walk ten minutes and we will be gone four hours, but it’s an opportunity I can’t turn down. We don’t see turtles, we see a nest, we get back at midnight and I stagger up to Avi’s room and flop back into the guest bed in the corner where I’d spent a good portion of the day.

The next day, in the stairwell of the hotel Avi told me he has been ready to be a father for years. Valerie wants to settle down with him, sees him as clearly as only a woman can see a man. Even what he sees as his own weaknesses, she perceives as his childlike beauty and charm, his warmth.

But Avi is ambivalent. “I don’t know that I don’t need to be with someone who speaks my language (Hebrew)).

As someone often incapacitated by double negatives, I wonder if this is a form of dementia that strikes when grappling with life decisions.

Shedding

Today I sent home five and a half kilos removed from my pack. Shirts, shorts, hiking boots, my shaving kit, a beach towel. Cost me about $50 and will take at least a week longer to get home than it will take me.

I could offer all sorts of reasons why this was a good idea, but I don’t think it was. Five and a half kilos, 12 pounds, was not breaking my back. The pack has wheels, after all, and could have taken another pound or two if that were rolled tight(ly). I’ve done most of my traveling by bus, with the bag down in the cargo hold.

So, there was little justification. We’ll just accept that. I sent the stuff home because I want to be without it. Instead of what I felt when first packing, that I shouldn’t be without it.

Boquete was the first place I could ship from, after this thought expressed itself. It even has a Mail Boxes Etc., which made it quite easy.

Some things weren’t being used, and wouldn’t be. They offended me every time I had to unpack them to find something I did need and included: Two brown shirts perfect for camping in Oregon. Two pairs of black shorts, perfect for back-to-back nights on the town, if I chose not to wear the long black pants with one of the two black shirts. I’ve not been “on the town” once, and have no need for three just-in-case outfits.

A beach towel I’d used twice, once as a towel and once as a beach mat. It didn’t work really well for either task. I bought a smaller towel, this one absorbent, just right for finishing off a shower. I will buy a beach cloth; smooth and synthetic, light and compressible, a print that doesn’t pick up sand between nubs of terry cloth for deposit in whatever room I stay.

My shaving kit: I have two, one-gallon, Zip Loc freezer bags, one for daily toiletries and the other for first aid. I have two more, empty, as back up. I can see through them for what I need, instead of rooting around in a black kit with smallish pockets for the one thing that’s never in the pocket I’m looking in.

The toughest decision was seeing off my hiking boots. But I’m not going up the side of a volcano — that’s something I do at home in Oregon. The trails here are not exactly roughing it, and though the pavement is often broken, snakes are not streaming from the gutter. Still, these are my feet! What if they need protection?

I had been strapping my rain shell and warm fleece on the outside of my pack; I’ve moved them inside.

I’ve changed plans, too. This actually felt like sending my hiking boots away. I was going to head down to Panama City, catch a ride through the Panama Canal. But it’s an eight-hour bus ride to Panama City. Then I would end up, after eight hours, in Panama City. I’ve spent a day or two there before, and don’t feel like it this trip.

Finally, going eight hours south takes me eight hours farther from where I lift-off, in San Jose to the north. Even though that’s nearly two weeks away, that’s adding 16 hours on the road and back, only to David, with another eight hours from David to San Jose, to go someplace I’m not that excited about.

I’m going to the Caribbean.

I will wander up the coast in Costa Rica, taking as long as I want in any place that’s more fun than I anticipated. Bocas del Toro is quite nice, I hear, and except for maybe 20 minutes, I’ve seen it only from the sea. At the end of the trip, I will have pretty much circled Costa Rica, leaving a couple of pockets for next time.

So, along with unnecessary items from my bag, I’ve removed the weight of doing something because I thought once I would do it, not because it’s something I want to do now.

Boquete has been a great break from the heat. I got a massage, have seen some fantastic flowers in a gorgeous mountain community, met some nice people. Today I actually had to put on a jacket. I didn’t send the jacket back, even though I’d only worn it once. Some things I keep, just to be prepared.

Everything is quite compact, now, light and tossable. It feels good to know it’s not too much, yet everything I need.

Stupid Monkey

It was nearly dark when Rebecca got to the hostel. She’d flown from New York to San Jose that morning, gotten bilked taking a cab from the airport to the chaotic bus station, just caught the four-hour bus ride to Quepos.

Standing in line to check in, there was a lightness about her. The others had huge, heavy packs jammed tight with anything and everything that might be needed. She had a small, blue, worn daypack, and a tubular cloth bag over one shoulder that did not even seem full. I wondered how it could possibly carry all she’d need to Quepos.

I was working from a bench near the office, the only place with wireless access to the internet. When they arrived from the bus, I asked the group where they were from. The others were from Germany. Rebecca said, “New York, originally from Oregon.”

“Really,” I said, “where in Oregon?”

“Portland.”

“I grew up in Portland. Now I’m from Sisters.”

“I just LOVE Sisters! I was actually raised for a few years in Bend!”

She joined me after checking in. We were soon talking about anything and everything, but my butt was sore from perching on the wood bench and I asked if we could move to the plastic chairs by the pool.

“Let me put my things away, then come back out. Do you mind?” she said.

Um, no, I didn’t mind at all, but wasn’t she too tired after all that travel? Not at all, she said.

We sat by the pool and talked. Every pause was filled by her asking another question: what I did, where I’d been, and how. Each of my questions drew at least two from her. She didn’t avoid answering, just seemed to have an insatiable curiosity about anything and everything going on around her.

Rebecca works for a Non Governmental Organization in New York, one focused on the environment. After graduating from Berkeley, she earned two Masters degrees, one in Anthropology and the other in Environmental Science. She was debating a PhD., her thesis proposal about how evolution changes itself, that the successful alter the environment that created the success, altering the next evolutionary phase.

The world was her lab.  From what I could piece together, she may have spent more years on the road than at any place she called “home,” since she turned 18. Central America. Colombia. India.

We talked about Oregon, about African Palms spanning hundreds of roadside kilometers along the highway from Jaco to Quepos. They are raised for palm oil, she told me, subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer, destroying local ecosystems and often the local way of life. She said returning indigenous people to their native habitat often was a better way of protecting that habitat than walling it off in preserves.

We talked about writing, travel, disagreed about the role of poverty in raising children ready to learn.

“It’s a culture problem,” I said, not knowing the word “culture” has become a “dog whistle” flagging racism.

“What do you mean a ‘culture’ problem?”

“I mean teachers are expected to solve problems that result from changes to culture, often driven by technology. It’s not just a matter of poverty. By focusing on poverty I think we often do the wrong things for all the right reasons.”

That seemed to mollify her. She had friends in New York struggling to do meaningful work, pay the mortgage, and have a family, who give their kids a latte when they pick them up from daycare so they can spend a waking hour with them in the evening.

“That’s what I mean by it being a culture problem. We want to have children, but don’t make the sacrifices, or can’t make the sacrifices, that raising children requires. Day care may not be sufficient. It isn’t just an issue of lacking resources.”

Rebecca is the youngest of six children, of which she said,  “Much, much easier than being the oldest.” That was typical, I’d learn; she looked at most events and situations in her life as a gift.

It wasn’t just that she traveled light. She seemed unburdened, without desire to pour out her story, or in need of affirmation. She absorbs, she asks. Perhaps her soul is like that round shoulder bag, with an extra dimension where the heaviness goes.

After two days in San Jose, where she would learn the priorities of groups she worked with, she was off to the Amazon to meet teams on the ground, and learn even more. She laughed out loud at herself when she said a cab driver asked if she had gotten Friday off work to come to Costa Rica, and she realized that she had completely failed to tell anyone at work she was leaving early so she could spend a couple of days exploring Costa Rica.

I asked if she would be gone for one week, two weeks, maybe a month, with everything carried in a small blue backpack and light round bag that must have an extra dimensions rather than pockets for all the things it must hold. She wasn’t sure.

She planned to go to the famous beachside Manuel Antonio Park the next day. We agreed to meet after breakfast and go together.

I almost didn’t recognize her in the lunch room, she had transformed into someone quite plain. She wore a long sundress, a shapeless ball cap, carried the blue pack. Her work in other countries, many requiring modesty, had taught her how to avoid drawing attention or giving offense.

We saw iguana, and incredible spiders. Crowds stopped to take pictures of sloths, birds, or monkeys. The sky was clear except for tall, bright white cumulus clouds offshore that highlighted the blues of sky and ocean, greens of the jungle that came to the edge of yellow sand where people played in the waves.

Some of her previous work was emotionally grinding: Interviewing Indian women from areas along the Bay of Bengal who had lost husbands, babies, or entire families to the tsunami that rolled in after the earthquake in Indonesia. Many were alone.

“Why do they choose to go on living?” I asked. She didn’t know the strictures in any one religion against suicide.

“There were a lot of tears,” she said. After doing interviews all day, she would go back to her hotel and write up reports intended to put faces on numbers that could possibly describe the magnitude, but never the depth, of suffering. It was hard, hard work in many dimensions.

At the famous Manuel Antonio beach, raccoons came up as soon as we put our packs down and pilfered a banana from hers that had been wrapped in a blue cloth napkin. The couple next to us said the raccoons actually unzipped their pack to get the goodies inside. I crossed the single cord “line” to retrieve her napkin, she laughingly called me her hero.

The spider monkey was nearly as bold, but at least he didn’t bare his teeth when we chased him away. He ran off in a gallop on all fours. I  hung our packs on small branches in the tree to at least slow him down.

On a short exploration, we saw a tree dedicated to a biologist. It reminded Rebecca of a book she had read about a biologist who had studied the hallucinogens of South America, how various indigenous people regarded some of these plants as gods, and protected them from the white man.

“I missed out on the hallucinogens,” she said. “My sister was a social worker and had stories of people she worked with, and would say sometimes that drugs were the reason or part of the reason they were so screwed up. That pretty much settled that.”

I confessed to my somewhat extensive background with hallucinogens, noting that I had not had any drugs, not even a drink, in nearly 30 years.

“Congratulations,” she said, but I said that congratulations are not really in order for an act performed with a gun to my head. I asked her about children, why that wasn’t a priority for her.

“Kids would be nice, if that happens. But I don’t think it’s necessary to have children for my life to have value or meaning.”

We agreed on that, but my question was about how she avoided that self-definition, when so many women did not, for what I thought were biological reasons.

“I don’t know,” she said at first, but I pressed. Eventually she said, “When I look at the choices I’d have to make, they just aren’t that appealing.”

Later on she said, “it wasn’t really a choice. It just seemed like that was what happened. One thing kind of led to another.”

I asked if she had no desire to settle down, be with someone, if someone hadn’t asked her to do so.

“Most of the men I’ve dated were good with this, and they were doing their own thing. As to being with someone who wanted to be together all the time, I just don’t think that’s necessary or a good thing. No.” she shook her head and seemed to recoil from the idea.

“No. Just no?” I questioned.

She shook her head at the idea, again as if it gave her a shiver.

I wanted to know why she exposed herself to all that suffering, the futility of protecting an environment against money that would usually, if not always, win. “What are you going to do?” she asked back, as if the answer was simply obvious; the fight  necessary even if victory beyond grasp.

I write about vibrant dreams and crushed hope to gather about me significance, I confessed. By working on behalf of women who’ve lost children, for others thrown off their land or had their culture destroyed by greed and corruption, she feels value, connection, to something important.

“Doesn’t that make us both voyeurs, in a way?” I ask, but realize quickly the question needs far more context, especially with this woman living so far out on the edge, and change my own subject.

Rebecca told me about a good friend who was writing a book, who had served in another NGO as a human shield: The job was to stick closely to a person who was a likely target of murder in a foreign land.

“Either the person already had body guards, or didn’t want them.  It’s a big deal to kill someone from the U.S. She was basically protecting them with the color of her skin, and her passport.”

This same friend said one time to Rebecca, “I’m terribly intolerant of a life without meaning.”

That was the best answer.

We found another beach quite close to the first. There were places in the shade under a large tree that had dropped tiny green apples to the sand.

“Are these apples?” I asked. “They look like apples.”

The leaves of the tree, though not the tree’s shape, even looked a little like those of an apple tree.

I picked one up and carefully bit into the fruit, expecting something incredibly bitter or sour, but was surprised that the initial taste was of tropical fruit, maybe like guava, not unpleasant.

“Why are those stupid monkeys stealing Cheetos, when they have all this good fruit lying around?” I said, trying to be funny. I usually prefer Cheetos to apples, too, given a choice.

About 10 minutes later, my mouth started to burn. We had found a place mostly in the shade, Rebecca had put out her beach cloth, I was on my towel. I had the best cell reception I’d had since the airport in Houston, I read, even made an internet phone call back home.

Rebecca was reading, but before long the Kindle fell to her stomach, her hands to her side on the sand. Her mouth moved, she was talking to someone in a dream.

As the minutes went on, the burning in my mouth became intense, worse than any chili pepper I’d ever eaten. Even though I had eaten none of the flesh, I could tell some of the juice had gone down my throat. My body was generating a phenomenal amount of thick saliva to wash away the heat. I tried to read as I shooed away iguanas that were wandering surprisingly close.

I was relieved when one picked up an “apple.” If the wildlife ate them, I was on safer ground, ignoring that an iguana might have a digestive tract slightly different than mine.

The iguana spit it out.

I stood, I walked, I spit into the sand. I realized the great cellphone reception I had would probably let me look up this little fruit, and at least put my mind at ease.

The phrase in Spanish translated as, “little apples of death.” That didn’t quite put my “mind at ease.” The manchineel is one of the most poisonous trees in the world. Standing under the tree when it’s raining can result in skin blistering.  Eating the little apples with the lovely scent “… may produce severe gastroenteritis with bleeding, shock, bacterial superinfection, and the potential for airway compromise due to edema. Patients with a history of ingestion and either oropharyngeal burns or gastrointestinal symptoms should be evaluated for admission in hospital…”

When Rebecca wakes up, she says, “naps are good.”

“You want the good news, or the bad news?” I ask her.

“The bad news.”

I read what I found about the “little apples of death.”

“What’s the good news?”

“I don’t know there is any.”

She shows immediate concern, but I try to put her mind at ease.

“If this is my last day on Earth, thank you for making it so enjoyable.”

She laughs, then does me one better.

“Those stupid monkeys…” she says.

“Yeah, what could they be thinking? Why raid backpacks when they have all this wonderful natural food available?” I add.

I go out into the ocean to gargle salt water. When I get back, I say, “You were sound asleep, dreaming.”

“I can fall asleep anywhere. One time I was on an airplane coming back from Colombia and sitting next to this nice man. We talked, I gave him my business card. Everyone around us could tell we were strangers. I fell asleep, and when I woke up I was completely wrapped around him, drooling on his shoulder. He called me for a year.”

“Are you a spy?” I ask, but she laughs and says she’d make a terrible spy, falling asleep on strangers.

“Or a very, very good one,” I say, but she convinces me she’s not.

She wanted to take another walk through the park, but what I read of the “little apple of death” made me want to be closer to medical help if needed, get some milk into my stomach and hit my drug supply back at the room. Nexium was one suggested treatment. I had something similar.

“You carry medicine for this?” asked Rebecca.

“You never know when you’re going to want a poison apple,” I said.

Another way of absorbing the poison was charcoal.

“What kind of charcoal?” she asked, wondering how that would work.

“I generally prefer Round Oak, but without the lighter fluid.”

“I admire your attitude,” she said at one point. “I think I would be in more of a panic.”

“Tell them I went out laughing. May I buy you dinner as compensation for missing the afternoon walk?”

“It’s a deal.”

At the hostel I took omeprazole, ate a yogurt, showered and changed, only to find that Rebecca had showered, changed, gone to the bus station to buy her ticket to San Jose, inquired at the front desk what restaurants were recommended, and was ready to go.

She wore a shoulderless long dress, a bit of lipstick, her hair free of the cap. I was stunned how she went from plain girl to such an alluring woman. Chameleon.

I sat at an adjacent side of the small square table so we could each look out at the street, so I could hear her over the din just beyond the step of the restaurant that had no barrier between tables and traffic.

At one point I asked if her heart had ever been broken, that I was sure she had broken many. She didn’t think either was true, her relationships mostly ended by a mutual consent.

“I’ve never been in a wrenching, unbalanced relationship, or ending. We’d talk about it, come to the conclusion it wasn’t working out.” She’d ended a relationship just a couple of months before, after five years. There were plans to get a place in Maine, but it just wasn’t working. He had suggested living together again in New York, but that was just a way of putting off the inevitable.

I confessed to wrenching breakups, suffering more than once from a broken heart. She asked if there was any way my marriage might have worked out, given the successful child rearing partnership, respect and affection I expressed for my ex-wife. I said no, despite the positives, we were just two too-different people.

I asked what she thought was required for a successful relationship. She turned the question around on me, which she was so good at doing. I said, shared vision and values, empathy, respect, and chemistry (letting myself think of how she looked asleep on the sand that afternoon, the balance of strength and and curve).

“You know, don’t you, that when I write my book, the stupid monkeys are going to be in it,” she said.

“You don’t think I’ll write about it?” I said. “I think ‘The Stupid Monkey’ has to be the title.”

We lingered after dinner until I saw her fidget with her purse; I paid and we went back to the hostel, where she asked if I would mind reading from her Kindle a book on the impact of modernity to religion in India, while she read another piece of my writing, from my phone. Flattered, I said yes.

After she finished reading what I wrote, we traded back and she read her book and I gazed at the day, looking forward and backward in time while trying to avoid the present. She was going north to San Jose, I was headed south, to Panama.

I was sitting next to a woman for whom I would sacrifice nearly anything, maybe everything, at another place and time; gone anywhere to have her as a partner in life, if she would have, at any time, considered having me.

But I knew, even if she were tempted, at another place and time, I would want days that would come from her life’s quest, a sacrifice she could not make.

Her presence was so fluid and free, to reach for her would be to grasp with hands at air, or water, or light. What I could fall in love with would not survive my falling in love.

Even that wouldn’t have mattered. At a different time and place, I would have risked it.

But I could do nothing about the fact that I arrived about 25 years too early, for our first and only date.

Surf’s Up.

Crossing the bay would take only an hour or so. It was early enough I thought it was safe taking off my shirt. I had my eyes closed, trying to send good thoughts to a friend who was at that moment on an operating table. But the water reflected the sun and I was getting burned.

The heat in Jaco was intense. There was no breeze. Air conditioning at the first hotel was an empty promise, the main draws were beach and bar, neither a draw for me. So I left and found a place downtown. Though I tried to walk near the waves perfect for surfing, my sunburn sent me back inside to the deep shade.

White men on the street had a furtive air. Maybe their wives were all shopping, or maybe their wives didn’t come down for the sport fishing or the surfing. Groups of men wore similar clothes, like the feathers of a flock of birds. This flock wore black polo shirts with brown shorts and flip flops. That flock wore striped business shirts with rolled up sleeves, tan shorts and tennis shoes. Over there getting ice cream were men in sleeveless shirts with either the brand of a beer or “pura vida” written on one side.

After dark I went out for food, and realized the town had changed from day to night. Birds gathered in the trees, and on wires above the sidewalk along the main street through Jaco. The ground under the wires is white with droppings and not a good place to walk. Black birds sit on the wires and in the trees and they talk to each other about what someone may have dropped outside the restaurants on either side of the street.

Men stood outside the bar with “two for one daquires,” talking to each other and any women who walked by, then came across the street to negotiate a price on an Indian meal for a large group, crossed back over.

Women in plumage began to appear on the sidewalks, stuffed into tight shiny dresses, on platform high heels that added inches to the length of their legs. One reached for my hand as I walked past, asking if I wanted some companionship. When I declined with a smile and as much grace as I could, she pouted and said she could make me more happy. The scent of her perfume lingered on my hand.

The next morning, a white man different than those of yesterday perched on a stool at the bar, then stood, like a jay or a magpie in a Costa Rica style, at a table where a man and woman waited for their breakfast. Skinny, unshaven, longish hair, blue jeans in need of a wash, flip flops and a Hawaiian shirt. He is animated talking politics, in English to the blond man, Spanish to the Tico woman.

It’s breakfast, I’m barely in possession of my first cup of coffee, and one of the first things I hear was, “I just feel privileged to be able to vote in two places, you know what I’m sayin’?”

Eventually he sat at another table and ordered breakfast. I ask if he gets to vote in Costa Rica, how long has he lived here?

Bill came down here about 30 years ago for the surf and never went home.

“Yeah, but I’m going to open a hostel,” he pauses, leans forward in a conspiratorial whisper. “That guy owns a hotel…” and nods toward the blond man he had been talking politics to.

“I’m going to open a hostel!…” he says in a much larger voice, as if the man who owns a hotel will be intimidated by a surfer hoping that American hostel transients will fund his dream of an endless summer.

But running a hostel is a lot of work.

“Yeah, but I know this Nicaraguan woman who can cook. I think it’ll work. Then I’m going to drive around this country, and look for my future ex-wife.” He waits for reaction to his clever discount of security, a line funny when he was 30 years-old and could discount romance so easily. Who will a 62 year-old surfer dude find who will be looking for him?

“Yeah, but there’s  so many women in this country. It’s unbelievable. I think the diet of rice and beans produces girls,” he says.

Bill came down to Costa Rica with a family, a long time ago. After a year, his wife returned Texas with his two boys, then four and eight. He does not dwell, but I see a small squall ripple across his eyes when he says, “I still don’t know what … why…” but he doesn’t finish the sentence.

His boys, raised by his ex-wife and her mother, she never remarried, “are killing it.” One works for Merrill Lynch, the other for Goldman Sachs. Bill goes back to Texas to see them a few times a year, he says, but it’s a year since he’s been. He has a child with a Costa Rican woman, too.

Bill has been out of the business of building surfboards for a while. He built boards with styrofoam blanks that he carved out of styrofoam blocks with a hot wire. He’d hand shape the boards, sand them down, build them with glass and resin.

“You don’t really need stringers (the wooden strips that give a board rigidity) in a styrofoam board,” he said, “but I like the way it looks. Especially with three stringers, one in the middle and one between the middle and the rail.”

He sold boards to people who appreciated the hand made.

But thousands of boards are available on the street running through Jaco. “There are more boards than there are surfers,” he says. “The hotshots and the corporations and the Chinese ruined the business. I think the Chinese should sell boards to the Chinese, and Americans should buy boards from Americans.”

But that wasn’t the only problem. “Me and my partner, we were building an inventory of surfboard blanks, but then he told me he wanted out. I told him we were just getting it going but he wanted out so I told him to just take what was his. He gave them to a guy we were selling the blanks to, who was going to pay him back as he sold boards.” Bill looks into the distance at what might have been a betrayal.

“He was a friend, too, used to be a friend, well, I guess he still is…” Bill’s voice trails off, then his momentum, never far off, returns to pick him up again.

“But I was ready to get out anyway, away from the fiberglass, the resins.” He seems remarkably healthy for a 61 year old surfer. “Yeah, at least I got that.”

But he knows all that sanding can’t be good for him.

“You gotta wear a mask. Well, you should wear a mask. I like to work where the wind blows through so you don’t have to wear one.”

He has a piece of property up in the hills he doesn’t want to sell. Only 20 minutes away, it’s at least 1,000 feet higher in elevation, maybe 2,000 feet, I can’t quite hear him, until he says, “it’s a lot cooler up there.” He’s tried to sell a piece of it, but anyone who looks wants the whole thing.

“I don’t want to sell the whole thing. In fact, I don’t want to sell it at all,” he says, and his face gets that same expression it had when he talked about his wife moving back to Texas with his sons, or when he talked about how his younger brother died six months ago, “one day before his 60th birthday,” which he repeats, as if that one day made it more tragic than if it had been a year before that birthday, as if his brother had just barely missed crossing some sort of finish line.

Bill finishes his breakfast while trying to figure out if one of his sons can put him on a payroll of sorts so Bill qualifies to receive whatever social security he may have earned before he became an expat in Costa Rica. “I think they left out the years I worked in Austin,” he says.

A little later he may go back to the house he has cut in half to turn into a hostel. “I got everything I need: beds, sheets. Everything, except for people to stay there.” He may go on the internet, but leans forward slightly to say, “I don’t really want to be seen, if you know what I mean.”

I didn’t want to guess what the conspiracy might be, so I play it safe. “Hard being seen without being seen,” I say.

“Yeah, I know that,” he replies, as if I had just insulted him.

But his flyers from a copy machine aren’t working, though everybody who’s seen them thinks they’re pretty cool. He’s thinking of changing the wording from “near downtown” to “near the beach, because people will think it’s not downtown and really it’s only three blocks off the main street.” He’s going to drop the nightly fee from $12 to $10, though everyone had been telling him he should charge $15.

Bill comes here to the Oasis nearly every day for breakfast. He thinks running that hostel will be the answer. Maybe it will won’t be like the cabinet building business, or the remodeling business, the surfboard business, the marriage.

“Thirty years,” he says, looking across the restaurant but seeing off into a distance, years more than miles. “I can’t believe it’s been 30 years. Where did it go?”

Birds

Geckos make little barking noises at each other, drawing lines, setting boundaries, establishing who gets which insects from what corner near the light that draws bugs near. Occasionally, some sort of night bird screeches, and I hear cooing from one of the trees in the garden.

I talked to a woman who told me she and her family were so afraid of lizards that when one got inside their home, near San Diego, they all stayed outside. When the lizard ended up in the couch, they had a neighbor take the couch away. As a six-year-old, my daughter K.C. would have taken that lizard outside the house and put it somewhere in the sun to be happy, then brought it something to eat.

This morning, a long-tailed bird with top feathers, it’s a magpie or jay in Costa Rica style, lands on the chair on the opposite side of the table from me. He eyes my granola. I paid good money for this breakfast, I tell him, it’s out of the question.

This is by far the fanciest restaurant I’ve been in on this trip. The waiter is deferential, even after he asks, “Are you staying here at the hotel, sir?”

Um, no. I wandered up from the beach.

He is still polite after I order the cheapest breakfast on the menu (but it’s my first choice! Regardless of price! I want to tell him. But I stick to ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ He knows I know.) It was a lovely walk through the sand, past tents where the nomads live, if you will, past elegant round huts with peaked roofs and just enough room for a bed and bathroom for upscale guests staying at the hotel.

I’m on my fourth or fifth cup of Costa Rica coffee (I really should throw out all that Starbucks I brought. What was I thinking!?) when I finally arrive, late and out of breath, to a semblance of awareness. I debate whether watermelon is a waste of red. But covered in yogurt and a sprinkle of granola, it serves as a vehicle, if not a fruit.

Papaya, now that’s another story.

Other guests of all ages slowly fill the veranda. The waiter treats us all equally, but he is starting to get behind as he brings fruit and yogurt, or French Toast, or pancakes or omelettes.

I can tell he’s not catching up by the way he asks the couple dithering over a decision of what to have for breakfast, as if world peace hung in the balance, if they needed just a little more time. He’s still a pro.

Some of these people can purchase anything on the menu, possibly purchase the hotel. But there is silence on the patio, even between couples. Especially between couples. No one seems to be particularly glad to be here, having breakfast. Maybe it’s too early, but there was more laughter at the small bakery outside the back door of the cheap hostel where I stay in the middle of town, when I headed down the beach a little after dawn on my first walk of the day.

An ancient, tiny man, bird-like and nearly lost in the plumage of an expensive Hawaiian shirt not that large, and red shorts, comes to the table with a full figured woman who is maybe a third his age. I want to believe she is his nurse, but her top falls open when she leans forward to sip her coffee and she makes no effort to conceal her breasts.

“Maybe we should buy some aloe body lotion,” she suggests. “Should I look for some After-bite?” Both comments take me to a place I don’t want to go. When the waiter comes, she flashes him a coy smile.

“How are you today?” she asks in a tone that is intimate all by itself. The smile lingers as she looks at her aged companion, as if gauging his reaction.

“I am good. And how are you?” replies the waiter, just within a boundary that makes it seem he may be slyly mocking her. She has a small silk scarf that had been around her neck. Now she pulls it nervously between her two hands, twining and untwining it between her fingers. Eventually she wraps it tightly around the index and middle finger of her left hand like a bandage to staunch a bleeding.

Pelicans are masters of wave energy. As waves push air up on their way to shore, pelicans glide just in front of the curl, wingtips inches from the water, getting lift.  At the last second, just before the wave rolls over, they peel off and out from the land to hitchhike on the next set on their way up the coast.

If they see a fish, they quickly point up, do a wing over then dive, wings raked back and beak straight down, into the water to catch a meal. Sometimes they sit there and swallow, sometimes they miss and immediately take wing.

After writing all morning, I walk a hundred yards to a cafe looking over the beach to brave a lunch of bacon and chicken and cheese. A middle aged Tico collects sticks and leaves left by the surf on the sand. He moves slowly in the hot sun; I wonder if he has been hired to clean up the beach or is scavenging firewood.

A young woman stands beside my table taking pictures of the shore. I look up and she says to me, “It’s so beautiful, isn’t it?” I compliment her Nikon, trying to place her accent, different than most I’ve been hearing on this trip but vaguely familiar.

“I’m from Israel,” she says. I ask what part. She says the north. I ask what town or kibbutz.

“You know Israel? Have you been there?” she asks.

“I was a volunteer in the Yom Kippur War, long before you were born,” I tell her. “They called us ‘Mitnavin.’ The volunteers. ”

She says something to the others at the table and they look at me with interest.

“How did you go there?” she asked.

“I was in Greece when Syria attacked Israel. The leader of Israeli Defense Forces, Moshe Dyan, the man with the eye patch? said ‘Haifez Assad believes it is 200 kilometers from Damascus to Tel Aviv. I’m here to tell him it is also 200 kilometers from Tel Aviv to Damascus.’ I said to myself, this is a war I can believe in, and volunteered.

“Because I wasn’t a Jew, they refused me at the embassy in Athens, so I flew into Tel Aviv. Eventually I got a job driving a forklift in Kyriat Shmona, where Katyusha rockets had fallen. I watched Israelis retake the Golan Heights.”

“You have given me goose bumps,” she says to me, pointing at her arm. “I have never met a volunteer who was not a Jew.”

A large bird, it looked just like an owl but maybe it just had its head tucked tight to its body because why would an owl be out at noon in this heat, glided quickly past the corner of the restaurant. I stand to get a better look but it is gone, down and round the corner before I can see more. The girl takes a few more pictures, tells me she has to run, they are going to catch a ferry.

The trail up to the waterfall is like walking along smooth rock trails that wind along the McKenzie or Deschutes, rivers of “my” Cascades, though I wouldn’t do those in flip flops. It’s what I had on, I was wearing my usual black swim/running shorts, the white shirt I live in but had wrapped around my waist. It took about 20 minutes and I was glad for the uphill workout, though it was not at all difficult.

At the falls, two men sat on rocks, playing chess. A man played a small Hang, the drum-like instrument I’d been introduced to in Santa Elena, sounding more like a steel drum than anything else, hollow notes ringing in the rock amphitheater with a metallic harmonic that played with notes of the flute played by the man sitting in a hollow nearby. They were musical elves where falls filled a pool deep and clear. Thirty or so people all clapped when a young boy made a 40 foot plunge into the water.

Older, stronger men did not go nearly as high.

Two girls from the falls were stopped on the road as I walked back to the main area of Montezuma. I asked what they could see.

“A parrot, a tiny one,” said the blond, pointing to a bird the size of a sparrow and not  much more colorful. She was from Newport, Oregon, about 180 miles from my home town but she’d never heard of it, she moved to Newport only a year and a half ago from Alaska, she said, but spends winters elsewhere to get out of Oregon’s rain.

We talk about salmon fishing in Alaska, where I had worked in South Naknek, and she said, “I did salmon too, and squid,” I think she said.  She had elegant tattoos, some from Mexico, others from Hermosa Beach, California, one tracking the vertabrae of her spine with either a pattern or letters in Chinese, I didn’t want to be close enough to look.

“I wanted to get one in Costa Rica but I haven’t met anyone here who does tattoos,” she said.

I said goodbye because I wanted one more walk up the beach. There was a small outcropping of red rock I’d seen this morning. The rock pure in color and smoothed by the ocean. I didn’t know what it was, but knew it was something I’d not seen ever before.

At the edge of the jungle, birds were singing about something that made them happy. Afternoon brought many people to the sand, to surf and swim and offer to the softening sun as much skin as they possibly could, which in some cases, was quite a lot.

The outcropping of red rock shattered the stone I brought as a small hammer, it was much harder than I thought, but a small piece came loose and I put it in my pocket  for the trip across the gulf to Jaco the next morning.

Pantalones

The shuttle was late, but Ryan wasn’t back yet either. Ava came out several times to the dusty sun-baked street of Samara to look for him.

I finally told her that if she was going to be on watch, I was going back in the shade to drink my coffee. She laughed and said she’d keep an eye out.

Five minutes later she called to me that the shuttle was coming. Ryan got back at the same time, carrying two styrofoam containers of scrambled eggs, rice and beans. After we got our bags on board and climbed on, we sat together in back.The vinegary smell of chili Tabasco sauce wafted up when he opened the lid. It made my stomach rumble.

I’d bought my breakfast the day before. I knew I was truly on the road when I stopped going out to eat just to eat. One of the local tiendas sold yoghurt and granola, mangos and bananas. My room had a fridge, so I took advantage of a chance to breakfast like I do at home looking out on the Three Sisters.

I’d had dinner with Ron the night before. He seemed a bit lonely, stopping at chairs of various young couples to ask where they were going, where they were from. Most often, he sat on the beach in the shade, drinking beer from cans with an Austrian Eagle, smoking Viceroy cigarettes.

I wondered what his story might be, asked if he wanted to join me for dinner.

Rather than the conversation I was hoping for, he mostly complained about food prices in Costa Rica, prices at this restaurant on the sand in Samara. He said most things with an unpleasant half laugh, as if that leavened the complaining. A couple of times I suggested he didn’t need to keep me company, there were less expensive places up the beach, but he found something he was reluctantly willing to spend the money on, so I listened while he told me about jobs he’d had he didn’t like, exgirlfriends who were whack jobs, family members who were envious.

But there were benefits, he pointed out more than once.

“No wife, no kids; my money’s my own to spend.” I got up once to go back to my room for air, and to bring him cream so he wouldn’t have to compulsively scratch at bug bites he’d picked up in Nicaragua on his legs. He reminded me, for reasons I can’t quite pull together, of the hermit crabs I found scuttling about on my way back to my room.

I first noticed the tracks. They were everywhere. An uneven line drawn in the sand, flanked by little divots in a row on each side. I’d not noticed them during the day, and since they went over and through recent footsteps from the casitas, I knew they were nocturnal and fresh. But I could hear nothing, see nothing. I hoped they weren’t rats.

There were so many of these tiny trails, I knew whatever was causing them must be close by. So I stopped walking and stood as still as I possibly could.

It didn’t take long. One by one, what I thought were small rocks and shells in the sand started to stand up and move. Hermit crabs! Everywhere! As soon as I walked near, they pulled into their shell and dropped to the sand and became just part of the landscape.

I picked one up to peek at the occupant. His legs were wrapped into a fist guarding the entrance, the largest claw holding it all together.

On the bus the next day I worried that rather than the dynamic and creative Ryan, the accomplished and athletic Eaton, I was one of those older cliches traveling alone, unable to know why I had no connection, shelled up in a past I didn’t really understand but carried around with me.

But my breakfast mango had been fresh and sweet, a nice contrast to the tang of real yoghurt, all mixed up with granola roasted in fat and sugar I chose to ignore, or pretend it was oats.

On the bus, Ryan told me he always cut it close.

“You ever miss a connection?” I asked him.

“Once, in Paris, I missed a train. We’d been out, I overslept or my alarm didn’t go off. It wasn’t a big deal, I caught another. Once I missed a plane.” I couldn’t be sure but I think he said he’d overslept for that one, too.

Ryan is a young filmmaker from New York. He had wrapped up a “narrative comedy” just before coming to Costa Rica. Ava has two more months of classes at Brooklyn Law, and will take her law board exams this summer. She has already interviewed for jobs, wants to go into criminal law. I try out a joke I use in a book being reviewed by a publisher, also a female lawyer.

“The trouble with criminal law is that you have to deal with criminals.” I wait for her to smile. She doesn’t.

“But that’s what I like,” she says, not a hint she caught the glint. She is so earnest, so sweet. Ryan hasn’t figured out what to do with his styrofoam container of leftover breakfast. Ava takes and stacks it on top of hers, and holds both in her lap until our next stop where she will be the one to throw them away.

Ryan’s narrative comedy is about guys who are movers in New York. “A keyhole view of the city,” he says. It sounds full of possibility, but at first I didn’t get that these weren’t real moving men.

“When I pitch it, they always say, ‘Hey, that’s a great concept for a reality show.’ I say, ‘Really! That’s an idea.’ ” Ryan and I agree that reality TV has cumulatively lowered America’s IQ.

We get out of the minibus in Nicoya to change to a larger bus coming down the coast. Ryan comes across the highway with another styrofoam container of food. On the way out of town, I see a sign pointing to “Tres Hermanas Bar and Grill.” Three Sisters Bar and Grill? Are you kidding me? What kind of cosmic joke is that?

I want to tell someone that I live in the shadow of the Three Sisters in Oregon and there, right there! is a sign in Spanish about the Three Sisters Bar and Grill but … but it’s not funny. Not significant. It just is.

The hills in this central part of the peninsula on the west side of Costa Rica remind me of the hills south of San Francisco, California, between San Jose, California and Monterey. They are dry, low, harshly covered in scrub; waiting for the rainy season. When we cross river beds, sometimes driving through them, men are working on bridges, a backhoe reforms in the channel; preparing for rainy season.

There are large trees full of bright pink blossoms but seemingly without any leaves. I wonder how they do that, why the work/reward ratio isn’t out of whack. Don’t they need leaves to create the blossoms?

There are more seats on this larger bus. Across from me sits a younger woman reading a book written by a Norwegian, translated into German, about a murder in Sweden at a masquerade party in a park; three young people were murdered and put into plastic bags, so it was impossible to tell when the murders occurred.

As Donata is telling me this, she struggles to find the right word for why the plastic bags made it impossible to tell when the young people were killed.

“Decomposed,” I offer.

“Yes! That’s it!”

We stop again at another way point. I’m still not hungry and like me, Donata hasn’t found Costa Rica cuisine to be something of excitement. “I don’t like so much the food,” she says in her German accent. We stand outside waiting for the bus to reload. She is well over six feet tall in flat shoes. I can’t see if Ryan, thin as he is, has found another meal but I’m sure I saw him looking.

Donata is from around Cologne, in Germany. She is a doctor, OB/Gyn. She went to Heidelberg. “A great university,” I say. “You know Heidelberg?!” She is charming in her willingness to talk about the mystery she is reading, and why she is on this bus today, since her two younger sisters were already at the hostel in Montezuma.

“We had our laundry done. The laundry said it would be open at 8, but when we went to get the clothes, no one was there.” So, Donata stayed behind an extra day to get the laundry, her sisters went on to Montezuma where they waited for her. There is only one bus a day down the peninsula. She had to pay for both, for the bus she took and the one she didn’t.

Donata stayed behind because, at 28, she was the oldest. Her youngest sister is 23, a student, her middle sister, a midwife, is 25. There is something in Donata’s German accent that resonates, thematically, as if spoken from the middle of a large room.

They are going to stop in Miami for four days on the way back to Germany. She is baffled by my question, “Why?” and then I realize it was a pretty silly thing to ask. Donata really liked Thailand when she was there, and thinks Sri Lanka is a lot like India, but more modern. She is a traveler, when not a doctor.

I ask Ryan, since I’ve decided he’s an expert, what local food he likes best. Seviche, he and Ava agree has been very good, and grilled fish, either mahi or marlin. I don’t know if that qualifies as local cuisine, but then he talks about a dish of plantain fried with avocado which is something I want to try.

The roads are rough, usually potholed gravel and rock and barely two lane. Where paved, they are potholed asphalt and barely two lane. The bus driver expertly weaves around slower trucks and bicycles that would have had me pause and wait if I were driving my compact Subaru.

I’m finally hungry after I get checked into my room. One of the better restaurants is next door. I wander down and sit at a table closest to where large pacific waves crash hard on dark rock veined with minerals I can’t identify. This is the Pacific I know, full of hissing and low thunder, pounding at the continent, not the easy warm shallows I paddled about yesterday in Samara.

I have an excellent salad of smoked tuna, lettuce, tomatoes, olives, mild onions, croutons and feta cheese. I ask for an iced tea instead of a Coke and what they bring me is the color of tea but must have been made with full cup of sugar. I pretend it’s okay for me to drink since my intentions were good. After a short walk, the sugar leaves my system, taking any residual energy with it and I fall asleep in the hammock outside my room at 5 p.m.

I was awakened just after 10 p.m. by a man’s loud hollering in Spanish. It wasn’t a howl, because his words were distinct. I just couldn’t understand them. It wasn’t simple shouting, either. It sounded like he was making angry demands of someone or something. I could tell he was drunk, maybe making demands of his wife, or kids.

Occasionally he would break into song, of sorts. He had a very powerful voice and was close, maybe in one of the shanties next to the hostel. I finally got up from my sleep, drugged from heat and travel and an iced tea listed as herbal but laced with sugar of near lethal proportions. I walked out to the barely lit tiny main street of this tiny town stretched along sand and palms and mangos in a thin line between cliffs and the Pacific.

He is as big as his voice, or would be if he could stand tall. His huge head has a full full beard shot through with gray that merges with long uncombed hair. Together they form a matted mane. Two metal crutches wrap around his forearms to assist his withered legs. He has a bottle of clear liquid in one hand, maybe a plastic bag in another, a cup sits beside him on the concrete step.

He looks at me as I walk past, only 10 feet away, but doesn’t see me, I don’t think. The cadence of his rant doesn’t change. It’s as if he’s in an argument with people I can’t see, maybe from his past.

Maybe he is arguing with God.

He has a case to be made, after all. Having made his case, he staggers up, trying to hold bottle, bag and crutches. He drops one and I suppress the urge to get it for him. I wonder if he will topple over as he bends to pick it up, but finally he gets all in hand and begins an uncertain progress forward. But just as a couple comes around the corner behind him, his pants fall nearly to his knees, exposing him completely.

God’s rebuttal.

“Mi pantalones…” is all he says, much more quietly than anything he’s said in the last two hours. It takes him a long while to pull them back up with the one hand available after he put the bag of whatever it was in his teeth.

I wonder how many steps he will take before his beltless pants fall again, exposing him again, arresting his agonizing progress again, down a tiny street that ends a hundred yards away in the sand.

Monkeys

There is a culture, on the road.

That isn’t exactly right. Maybe I should have said, there is a culture OF on the road. Or maybe I should have said: There is a culture of “on the road.”

I mean it in the way they used to talk about a “ tribal culture.” And actually, I should have just said tribe.

There is a tribe of “on the road.”

James Michener wrote about it once in “Drifters.” I was one of those, on one of the circuits between Europe and the Mideast and India. Others rotated between Europe and Africa, and visited places like Marrakesh. We’d meet in transport centers like Istanbul, or on a kibbutz in Israel, on trains to and from Afghanistan.

Not through Afghanistan. There we’d have to disembark and get on buses or jeeps in Kabul or Herat to cross one or another of the borders. There are no trains through the Khyber Pass.

Then, as now, it is fascinating how many accents there are on the road. Yesterday, I was the lone North American.

“People in South America call themselves ‘Americans,’ too,” said Cheyenne, my seat mate on the bus up from San Jose. The accents are French, German, mostly. There are Dutch, and Poles. There are Canadians and yes, there are young people from Massachusetts, Texas. But most of the travelers grew up in other cultures, speak with a heavy accent, and speak Spanish fairly well, too.

It seems to flow, this tribe, driven not by season as much as by a blend of curiosity, common values, similar definitions of beauty and “cool,” and ease of living. This  “on the road” culture of my past is obviously still vibrant, and I obviously don’t “belong,” because I’m too old, wear too many clothes, and frankly, was never really that carefree or good looking.

God these kids are good looking. Some of them are surfers, all of them seem amazingly healthy, quite apart from their youth. Maybe it’s fresh air and sunshine. Maybe it’s the minimal diet of beans, rice and fish, many of them are vegetarians. Maybe it’s genetic, and they are the spawn of good looking privilege. But so many of these kids are genetically gifted, it’s not like walking down any major city street. It’s not even like walking across a college campus.

And they have their own style. T-shirts, shorts and sandals, mostly. Dreadlocks abound, those of some young men longer than those of any of the women. But some of each have shaved heads. Tattoos are essential, either simple ones, like the small tattoo of an Native American dream catcher on the neck of the young Polish woman at the bus station in San Jose, or incredibly ornate “sleeves” of multiple colors. Backs, shoulders, ankles, chests… all are a canvas.

Earrings, nose rings, other rings certainly. I’m sure some could set off an airport metal detector, but they don’t fly much, except maybe between continents. And if airlines allowed them to stack themselves six-deep to save a few bucks, I think they would.

At the butterfly sanctuary are some wonderful young people. But they are no more members of the tribe than I am, perhaps even less. My barrier is age, theirs is earnestness. They are between jobs, or between university and a job, working for room and board in Costa Rica, which is a pretty good gig, after all.

They are responsible. They wear polo shirts with the logo of their employer. They are not “on the road.” Or maybe they are, but at one end of a spectrum.

At the other end are what I used to call the “stayed too longs.” I don’t remember which of us coined the phrase, but I do remember the first reference. We were wary of those who had spent too much time, and spent all their money, in Goa on the coast of India. There were drugs of every sort in Goa. Hashish, opium LSD… You could get high for pennies in the 1970s, eat for a few pennies more, and sleep somewhere for not too much more than that.

We’d see those who had burned through everything they had, and more, who were drifting back to Europe. For some reason, many were French. Sometimes English. Occasionally American. Their clothes were in tatters, most of their belongings could be knotted up in a bindle, and they were horribly skinny.

“Whoa. He stayed too long,” we’d say.

Eventually, it stuck. We called them “StayedTooLongs,” and kept away from them, because they’d steal your ear wax to sell you a candle.

They would be at the other end of the spectrum from the young etymologists at the sanctuaries today, waiting for the female scorpion to give birth, excited to watch her carry her young on her back, or feeding the spectacular butterflies (some bigger than my hand!) with wings that iridesce to warn off birds with a message that they are poison if a mouthful.

I don’t see any StayedTooLongs on the road here, in the rain forests near Santa Elena. You have to want to get here, it takes effort. And once you’re here, there’s too much to do. Maybe they are all down at the beaches. But then again, that’s where the surfers are, and where the sport fishermen from Texas were going, men my age, the ones wearing polo shirts over big bellies and jeans and deck shoes, in a group laughing loudly on their way to the plane from the airport bar in Houston.

Some call these young travelers nomads, and that makes sense. And perhaps that’s another reason I don’t belong. Even though I’ll be here, somewhere, a month or so, I still have a home and things to do I’ve got to get done. A young man from Switzerland, I believe, has an incredibly awkward Hang drum on his back. He explains that it’s worth it, though, he can earn a hundred dollars or so playing for an hour and that nearly pays for his trip.

Then there’s the wonderful family from Canada. Mom, Dad, Akayla, Niko. The tether between parent and child is strong but flexible. These kids don’t know what they have, but will always be better for it. They will always be part of this tribe.

Today I headed into the jungle. Sort of. I did the zip line, because you just do. I walked the forest trail, because I’ve been told to be wary of snakes. The bushmaster is the largest of the pit vipers, and the fer-de-lance is called by some the ultimate viper because it packs seven times the venom. I hoped I see one or the other, from a distance to be sure, and maybe a sloth, and a monkey.

Being here offers both sides of jaded. The concrete lined trails were not very romantic, the suspension bridges more contrived than the trails through Forest Park in Portland, those up South Sister, at the tip of Fidalgo Island. But rather than jaded, it’s also possible to realize how incredibly lucky we are in the Pacific Northwest.

Still, I’d hoped for something a little more raw.

Until I came upon the monkeys.

(For photos of the forest trail, click here)

No Clue

At the first hotel in Costa Rica, I realized I had no clue of where to head next. But I had a month and could take it a day at a time.  After all, I never expected to to have an interest in butterflies. 

My first exposure to butterflies was decades ago, long before I’d heard anything about the “butterfly effect,” or metamorphosis, or anything to do with the bug, which really didn’t interest me.

It was from Chuang Tzu, a Chinese philosopher, who wrote something to the effect: “I dreamt I was a butterfly, happily flying among the flowers. Then I awoke. But how do I know that I am not a butterfly, dreaming I am Chuang Tzu?”

 More recently, I came across a couple of facts about butterflies that struck me as wonderful and bizarre. The first was that in its metamorphosis, the caterpillar essentially dies, its body turns to soup, and from this soup, a butterfly is assembled.

To me, that’s like making a rooster out of chicken broth.

The second was that in the migration of butterflies north in the spring, the butterfly that arrives is not the one that left the south. It is the fourth generation: It takes three generations of birth, life and death to get north, and the fourth generation of butterfly goes south again to winter in the very same tree as its great, great, grandparent. Four soups ago.

That challenged my notions of  “an individual.”

In the hostel in San Jose going through the Lonely Planet,  I decided my first stop had to be the Monteverde Rainforest. I called up a hostel in Santa Elena recommended primarily for their honest advice, made my reservation and faded early, about 8 p.m.

Admittedly, there are  lows traveling this cheap. But there are  highs, too, that for me outweigh the troubles. I’d walked for miles through the city. I’d taken photos of architecture and guitar players, enjoyed the sights and sounds. I especially liked the rotunda where teens were breakdancing while adults sat on benches along the promenades.

At dinner at the hostel, I had a burger and watched 20 somethings start to get drunk on the upstairs deck. Which I didn’t need to remember in quite that much detail. I was probably asleep by 9.

I woke up at three o’clock to the sound of violent retching.

“Whoa, she’s really sick,” I thought, and rolled over to go back to sleep. I wondered if it was the pot or the vodka the kids were consuming, the sugar in some of the godawful drinks.

“Whoa, he’s really sick too,” I thought a couple of minutes later. I figured I knew which couple it might be.

I was wrong. When I finally got up at 5 a.m., showered and sat in one of the alcoves waiting for coffee to be available at 7 a.m., three girls had taken up residence on the sitting shelf outside stalls of the communal bathroom. Every 10 minutes or so, one of the three would go into one of the stalls and loudly throw up the water she had been drinking. Unless she hadn’t been drinking any, then she’d sing the high notes of dry heaves.

“You are so sick,” I said with sympathy as I walked past. It was sincere, I did feel bad for them.

“Food poisoning,” said the young woman. “The seviche.”

“That’s awful. I’d figured it was the vodka.”

“I don’t think so, we all had the vodka,” she said. After thinking about that, I let it drop. The misery on their faces was something I could still feel, nearly 30 years after last drinking vodka or anything like it. And mostly avoiding seviche in second world kitchens.

I finished the book I was reading, left it behind on the couch and headed out the front door. A book?! I can read on my phone! But leaving things behind is one of the treats of on the street travel. You get lighter the longer you’re out there.

I’d been told to head to the Coca Cola Terminal to catch the bus up north to Santa Elena. A cab driver was at the door. And I jumped in.

We had driven 10 minutes when we came to a park. One of my favorites from my walk the day before. It had the rotunda, and was about a five minute walk from where we started the cab ride 10 minutes before.

“Ah, no,” I said to the cab driver, who spoke no English in that moment. At least I didn’t hear any. But he could tell from my pointing at where we were on the map, and where we started, that our route was far from my favorite. Eventually we were close enough to the bus station I told him to let me out. He didn’t argue.

For 10 minutes I threaded my way through stalls and vendors who had taken up occupancy on already narrow sidewalks, my backpack making me larger sideways than straight ahead, my big bag bumping behind me on the broken pavement. It was hot, the sun was out, the streets busy, cab and lorry drivers seemingly speeding up and on the horn up when I was only half way across an intersection. I was thankful for the miles I’d spent on the river trail at home, the hours in the weight room. It made it pretty easy to haul me and my stuff through the city.

To the wrong bus station.

A cab driver there told me the buses to Santa Elena left from the station in the north. I’d been misinformed. Squinting at the map, and trying to summon enough of my nonexistent Spanish to understand the flea-size print, I decided he was right. He offered to drive me to Santa Elena.

“Three hours,” he said. Three hours was how long it was going to be until the next bus left the station for a five hour ride. But he was saying it would take him three hours to take me to Santa Elena. I told him no, and grabbed the handle of my bag and threaded my way through industrial streets to the bus station for northern destinations. I got there an hour after I left the hotel.

I could have walked there directly in 20 minutes.

I bought my ticket and went to sit in a cafe where I tried unsuccessfully to boot up my computer, had a bit of lunch. Eventually I sat next to a woman from Santa Elena who spoke nearly no English, a younger couple from Poland whose English was quite good, and a young woman with red hair the color of aged and lacquered copper. We watched each other’s bags while we went to the bathroom one last time.

When the bus pulled out of the station I was sitting next to the woman with red hair, 26 years old and from Holland. She was still a university student, and has been traveling for four weeks on a two-month trek through Central America.

She had already been through Asia on a similar adventure, one that took about six months and included riding on the back of a motorcycle for three days through Viet Nam, a trek in Indonesia. Now she’d snorkeled in the Caribbean of Nicaragua, was hassled at the border for not having a specific exit date and nearly denied entry, and like me, is looking for giant butterflies in Costa Rica.

I told them I’d once been on the road for nearly two years in the 70s. The young man from Poland lamented he had gone to work before he started to travel, now he is limited to two week stints. His girlfriend had a dream catcher tattooed on the side of her neck.

We rode for five hours through the low but steep sided hills of Costa Rica. My bus mate told me Holland was quite flat.

“I don’t like having an agenda, an itinerary,” she told me. “If you have an agenda, you don’t see something new, but who you already are. I’d miss so much.” I’d already used that line in a book, or I would have stolen it. She was studying social psychology, would probably teach others. She had been an art student, but could not find enough purpose in that.

When we got to Santa Elena after dark, she went to find a room at one hostel, I trundled off to find my room in another, where I’d called ahead. I’d decided that for the next couple of days, I wanted my own bathroom.

“Oh,” I turned around. “What’s your name?” I thought I’d at least like to know with whom I’d shared the ride and conversation.

“Cheyenne,” she said to me.

“Excuse me?”

“Cheyenne,” she repeated, laughing at the expression on my face.

I turned and walked away, knowing I’d never learn why a young woman from Holland who looked like she’d not seen a day in the sun with hair the color of copper had a Native American name.

After I checked in, I had dinner in Morphos, a restaurant decorated with giant butterflies.

Final countdown

In little more than a day, I’m off to Costa Rica. Took a photo of home, and a dinner from the last week to test the camera and the links. (Click here for photos. Please let me know if something is not working).

Those pictures are also to remind me what I get to come back to when I’m stuck  for a day or two in a bus station where fluorescent lights draw clouds of bugs with teeth, stingers, or suckers, and the hotel, if any, is too far to walk at 3 a.m.

On the other hand, my hope is to see butterflies larger than your hand. And listen to a cacophony of  howler monkeys. To get there, you have to go there. In some places, avoid a couple of poison snakes, and poison dart frogs. Covered in DEET and netting, too, I suppose.

But the ocean beaches are spectacular, I’m told, and warm weather will be a welcome respite. It snowed here again this morning. I’ve been told by experienced travelers that Costa Rica is the most beautiful place they have ever been. Two days of work left and 30 hours to get it done, and I can hardly wait.

It’s been decades since I’ve trekked with no agenda, time targets roughly defined by “or so.” I’ll be in San Jose for a day or so, Jaco for a few days or so, Golfito and David and Boquete for a few days or so each. Back in a month or so.

More to come.