Five, four, three-two-one, ready or not, here (A)I come

There’s been no announcement, no baby shower nor celebration, but the signs are all around us.

Artificial Intelligence (AI) has arrived. Should AI be named “IT,” standing for “Intelligent Technology?” Pronounce it “Eye Tee” so IT feels more friendly.

But whatever we name IT, whether we call it “AI” or “machine learning” or a “cognitive system” or “deep neural network,” or a “distributed entity.” IT has awakened.

More accurately, multiple ITs are stirring. Google has DeepMind/AlphaGo, IBM has “Watson.” Amazon is fully invested, and infamously secretive Apple is no doubt trying to catch up. AT&T and Verizon would be working on AI as, as well. Facebook almost certainly has one in the works.

That’s just in this country. The world’s fastest computer now resides in China, and we know Russia and Israel would not be content being left out of the greatest revolution in the history of human kind.

Why? Because IT is better at understanding the world than humans, even vast collections of humans in the form of corporations or governments pooling limited organic brain power.

The human brain developed as a pattern-discovery-creation organ that gave us great evolutionary advantage. But organics are slow, have to learn over and over again, and wear out (die), often taking their knowledge with them. Advantage has now gone to “non-organic entities” with unimaginable access to information at both granular and grand scales.

Although there may not be collusion, companies in the U.S. that have developed IT are being very, very careful not to scare humankind. They are “boiling the frog” and conditioning our perceptions before letting us know they have created a new “intelligent life form” that is not really “alive,” even though we don’t actually know what “being alive” means, any more than we know what “intelligence” is.

But the signs are there, if we look. IBM has ads that tout a new world is coming, that the ability of cognitive systems is essentially unlimited.

IBM openly claims that cognitive systems will “extend and magnify human expertise …will learn and interact to provide expert assistance to scientists, engineers, lawyers, and other professionals in a fraction of the time it now takes… Far from replacing our thinking, cognitive systems will extend our cognition and free us to think more creatively. In so doing, they will speed innovations and ultimately help build a Smarter Planet.”

That “Far from replacing our thinking…” is whitewash, intended to put us at ease. It’s also open to interpretation if not outright dispute.

The magazine Wired had an excellent article last May by Cade Metz about how Google’s AlphaGo defeated Lee Sedol, the world’s greatest human player of Go, possibly the world’s most complex game. There were many interesting story lines, but here are two that are especially interesting: On move 37, AlphaGo made a move that no human player would have made.

Move 37 showed that AlphaGo wasn’t just regurgitating years of programming or cranking through a brute-force predictive algorithm. It was the moment AlphaGo proved it understands, or at least appears to mimic understanding in a way that is indistinguishable from the real thing,” wrote Metz.

The move by the IT was later described as “beautiful.”

But the Go tournament in Korea was not just another milestone. According to the Wired article, “Eric Schmidt—chair and former CEO—flies in before game one. Jeff Dean, the company’s most famous engineer, is there for the first game. Sergey Brin (co-founder of Google)flies in for games three and four, and follows along on his own wooden board.”

These internationally known, fabulously wealthy Titans did not fly to Korea to watch a board game as if they were going to the super bowl. They were there for an event that equates to the birth, perhaps the adoption, of a child.

Google did not invent AlphaGo, they acquired it, like they have so many other small companies that are building the future, including robot-maker Boston Dynamics. Go ahead, click the link, then imagine, for just moment, a pack of those “dogs” chasing you. With intelligence greater than yours, and able to anticipate every zig and zag you make.

Or imagine it bringing you a beer … before you knew you wanted one, or doing the dishes. That’s what Google wants you to imagine, even as we learn that a robot delivered a bomb last weekend that killed a murderer in Dallas.

We won’t go into where an AI actually exists, or into the history of neural nets or fuzzy logic that made it possible. It doesn’t have to “live” anywhere. Douglas Hofstader proved in 1979 in his book “Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid” that intelligence doesn’t have to be “localized,” that synapses and neurons can be spread across vast distance and still be part of an intelligence.

More and more often, tools we use exist “in the cloud.” This may protect us from data loss or give us access wherever we are, but also provides incredible amounts of information to software that harbors and analyzes our input.

Siri and Google’s language algorithms and translators learn how we talk, then talk back to us with increasing accuracy. There are so many apps now collecting data in ways mostly undisclosed, such as “flashlights” that claim access to the email and cameras on our phones.

Later, in “I am a Strange Loop,” Hofstader showed how fairly simple self-referencing systems can lead to fairly complicated outcomes, including a sense of “self.”

Suffice it to say, the cell phone in your pocket or purse could easily be a part of a “distributed entity.” Don’t bother turning it off. Like a hologram, the information it contains can be replicated elsewhere, if at a coarser resolution.

Nor will we debate that “humans” have a special place in the universe, by definition “above” the machines we create. “Human Exceptionalism” is a religious argument, or a tautology, and I’ll leave this to those who enjoy that debate.

The key came when we began to “teach” machines instead of program them. And we’ve done a pretty good job, from self driving cars to intelligent fighter jets that are now better than pilots. Okay, that last was on a simulator. But at some level, each of us dwells in a “simulation.” The fact that we agree on certain elements, or perceive the same wavelengths, does not give humankind an inherent superiority.

Evolution worked with what She had. Now, AI simply has more to work with.

Which brings up a few points. Certain “motivators” have been quite effective over the millennia in bringing humans to this stage of development. Fear, for example, or lust. It’s important to think about what we mean as we think about their role in human history.

On an individual level, are they more than the internal perception of motivations written into our genetic wiring? Would there be an advantage to similar motivators, or “pattern reenforcement” in the circuits of a cognitive system?

Do we give our AIs a “fight or flight” circuit, or a “lust” button triggered by visual or sensory inputs? Will they “evolve” one on their own? The possibilities are endless, for good and evil, quaint terms in their own right.

Like so much in the history of accelerating technology, AI arrived before we were prepared. From the dawn of the Industrial Age, technology preceded laws needed to integrate it with values of human experience. From cotton mills in England to sweatshops in New York to phone factories in China, each brought a revolution.

The one we face now is every bit as profound, if not more so. American workers are not only dislocated by the global economy, but also by robots building cars in Detroit and Tokyo, reducing the value of human labor.

And if robots now replace assembly line workers, soon AI doctors will not need to refresh knowledge of a narrow subject with Continuing Medical Education. An AI has all-time, real-world access to the world’s complete medical data base, and is always the best doctor possible, not just the best one available.

With scanners, blood markers, and the watch on your wrist, AI may or may not even need you to describe your symptoms. In fact, AI may be able to anticipate your health events, even your moods, before you’ve had a chance to experience them, and “set you right” before something has gone “wrong.”

AI in the court room would not be influenced by lawyer antics or eloquence or expensive shoes. Facts are already known, judgement immediately rendered. Right is right, and wrong is wrong, even if based on complexities mere humans might not understand.

None of this was intentional, unless one believes in Intelligent Design or irreducible complexity, either interpreted far differently from original intent. In the same way cars and television, then the Internet and the cell phone, changed our families and interpersonal connections, technology appears then modifies the environment by fulfilling human desires which in turn are modified by the technology.

This reciprocal modification, where a single organism modifies an environment that then reenforces changes in organisms, is one of evolution’s shortcuts, by the way.

If AI knows where each of us is at every moment, knows where and how we spend each dollar, maps our network of friends over time and monitors every word used to communicate with them, all of which are right now tracked and sifted digitally, then what is our ideal of freedom?

Outlaws, like those who defied the King and built the United Staes, disappear “for the common good.”

The advance of IT or AI ultimately forces us to ask truly existential questions: What is the value of a human being? What is my value? We don’t have easy answers, or the one’s we do have are too easy.

If AI combined with robotics can replace most human endeavor, what do we do with our days? Do we lose ourselves in a VR world of holographic absorption, endless hours of screen time? Do we Tai Chi in parklands created where highways used to be when humans commuted to work? When humans used to work?

What will unite us? In the past, tribes had a common enemy, or a common God, a set of values and beliefs that defined the tribe and were shared by members. AI / IT challenges us to redefine what these may be.

Or perhaps, we’ll allow ourselves, or be forced, to assimilate into the next step in the evolution of intelligence, and become Borg.

It would be good to have the discussion before that happens, if it’s not already too late.

What color is your “blue?”

Back in the early days, when the internet was trying to define itself, different web pages sometimes looked different on different brands of computer, depending on which browser was being used.

The pages would be “rendered” (drawn) differently, depending on algorithms used by both the sending and receiving machine.

For grins and giggles, let’s pretend that each “me” of us is a user, and what we think of as “what’s real” is simply the way our browsers (brains) render the input we receive from others machines that, in turn, have to render their inputs, and often do so imperfectly.

What’s drawn depends as much, or even more, on the receiving machine’s algorithm as it does on the dots and dashes transmitted by the sending machine. We all are building and changing our algorithms daily. Most of us, anyway. I know a few who haven’t changed much since the 70s, but that’s another topic.

I bring this up because it’s important to think about why we think the way we do, and to understand that we can hold fast to our “rendering” of reality without much certainty that it is “objectively” true.

In fact, there ain’t no such thing.

Butterflies

He turned sideways in the aisle to move past passengers still struggling to jam slightly too-large carry-ons into the overhead compartment. I groaned inwardly, because I knew exactly where he was going to sit.

It had been a long couple of nights in San Jose. My room was right next to the bar, and synthesized music pounded incessantly on the wall above my head. It was cold and the blanket inadequate. Each night I huddled with my hands between my thighs to keep them warm.

I drifted off not long after I sat down on the plane, and dreamt I was Chuang Tzu dreaming he was me. I’d been looking forward to leaning up against the window and sleeping my way through the entire flight, maybe use the footwell of the empty seat next to me to stretch out.

That wasn’t going to happen. I knew it as soon as I saw him.

He was wearing greenish cargo shorts of some sort, with too many pockets full of too much stuff so they bulged in too many places; flip flops, and a shirt that might have been white once, a long while ago, but was so wrinkled it looked like it had been wadded up and tied with tight rubber bands. He was three days away from his last shave, and his hair, though clean, looked like he combed it with his fingers.

“Hi,” he said as he sat down. He dropped the small day pack he carried to the floor, shoved it under the seat in front of him with his feet.

“Hi. I wondered if I wouldn’t run into you on this flight. I was hoping for a nap.”

“Yeah, well…” his voice trailed off into a smile. “It’s good to see you again. I didn’t know if you noticed me hanging back there.”

“Not at first,” I said. “Have you been behind me the whole trip, or just since Quepos?”

“For longer than you know. Let’s leave it at that for now.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Why have I been behind you, or why are we leaving it at that?” he responded.

“Yes,” I said. His clothes had the slightest odor, I can’t say that it was unpleasant, but I could not identify it. It might have been food, or perhaps just the dense muskiness of being stored without air in his backpack.

“It seemed like you were doing some sort of research that might be of interest, we decided to find out.”

“Of interest to whom? Are you with the government? U.S. or Costa Rican?”

“Not really,” he said. “I work for more of a development agency, of sorts. Let’s leave it at that for a moment. Want a Coke?”

“They’re not serving. We’re barely off the ground.”

“Yeah, I guess that’s right.”

“So, is your development agency a non governmental organization? Private company?” I asked.

“Stubborn, aren’t you? No wonder all those people spilled their lives out to you.”

“You know about that?”

“I thought that’s what we were talking about.”

“Is there an echo in here?”

“No,” he said. “I think it’s just the drop in cabin pressure.”

“So, somebody you work for or are involved with thinks that what I’ve been doing is of some interest from a development point of view?” I asked.

“Something like that.”

“Thats why you’ve been following me around?”

“No, I was following you, though that’s not the right term for it, to see if you were being honest or just out to exploit others.”

“What’s the verdict?”

“Nobody’s perfect.”

“Ouch.”

“You did okay,” he said, trying to soften the impact.

“Ouch.”

He got a tired expression on his face, and I swear he rolled his eyes, but caught himself and looked at me as directly as he could, given we were seated side-by-side in cramped airplane seats.

“Alright. You were as honest as you could be, and while you did stray a little close to the line at times, exploitation is hard to define when it comes to art. Do painters exploit their models?”

“Nice analogy,” I said.

“I’ve picked up a few pointers. The main thing is that you didn’t exploit for cheap or easy reasons. And you were honest. Those are high marks where I come from. Accept it and let it go.”

“Why sit next to me now, when you’ve tried so hard to stay out of sight?” I asked.

“Because we’re about done. You’re going home, and I needed to ask you some questions.”

“I’ll want to ask you some in turn,” I said.

“Fair enough, but do you mind if I go first?” he said.

“I suppose not. Go.”

“Do you have a favorite?”

I laughed out loud, because his question hit right in the middle of the bullseye. That was the very question I’d been asking myself. I looked out the window while I assembled my thoughts. He was able to stop the attendant and he even reached over and dropped my tray table. It took me until the two Cokes had arrived to give him an answer.

“I thought I would. I figured it would be Rebecca, of course, then thought it would be Olivia, how her potential was tempered by vulnerability. Alycia for her faith and serenity. Valerie’s blend of intelligence, wisdom and passion was stunning, and Avi’s innocence, honesty, and strength made him  “amazing,” to use his favorite word. Ed made me sad and of course, so did Pantalones, but that was no reason to reject them. So I don’t know. I didn’t get quite deep enough into the others, I suppose, or deep enough into myself where they would resonate.”

“Did you learn anything?”

“I learned I can live small and still feel fulfilled, as long as I have art. Rebecca, Valerie and Olivia made me realize how selfish I can be.”

“Why?” he asked, actually looked confused.

“By how much they give, are willing to give, the extent of their sacrifice. It may be a female thing,” and then I immediately regretted saying that. But by the way he smiled, I think he saw the regret and let it drop.

“What else did you learn?”

“How thin are the differences.”

“What do you mean?”

“We focus on the differences between us, between people or between people and animals, even between people and the ocean. But at so many levels, we are really all the same, at least have the same rhythms, and it is the rhythms that unify. I don’t have better words for it than that.”

It was his turn to look away and think for a while.

“What was your favorite place?” he asked.

“Bocas del Toro.”

“Because of Olivia and Alycia, Avi and Valerie? You know they won’t still be there if you ever go back,” this he said with a real look of compassion in his eyes. “Would you want to live there?”

“Probably not,” I said. “I think it was the water. I like Bocas, I will go back and maybe for a longer period of time, but I don’t want to die there. The Pacific Northwest is my home.”

“Okay. Last question. Why did you go? What were you looking for?”

“That’s two questions,” I said.

“And there will be followups. But humor me.”

“Adventure. Connection. Love, maybe.” I don’t think I’d admitted that even to myself before he asked.

“Did you find it?”

“No.”

“Really? What about the story of Olivia and Alycia? What about Avi and Valerie?”

“Well, yes, I saw their love, how they loved and how they were loved. I meant something else.”

“Something more personal?

“Something more my own,” I admitted.

“Let me ask you this. Do you believe you can perceive an emotion you don’t experience?” He was looking at me intently as he asked this, so I was a bit wary, careful with my answer.

“No, my guess is that perceiving the emotion is experiencing it.”

“Hah!” this exploded out of him, was so loud it startled me and caused the man on the aisle seat to look over, even though he was wearing headphones and watching a movie. “Good boy! So if perceiving emotions and experiencing them are the same, can we agree that by perceiving love, you experienced it?”

“That was a trap. Yes, I’ll agree I experienced a form of love and connection, but not the way I want to be loved and connected.”

“Well, let’s get to that. My guess is that if you have this capacity for love, you have been loved. Correct?”

“Okay.”

“What happened?”

“Different things at different times.”

“You fucked it up.” He managed to say that with compassion but I don’t know how.

“Mostly. Yes.”

“Why?”

“Different reasons in different relationships.”

“Really?” he asked, now in the same tone of voice people use when they say “seriously?” indicating a level of stupidity hard to believe.

“My exwife said I let go of what I want to reach for what I can’t have.”

“Sounds like a wise woman.”

“Yes, and your point would be…?”

“Oh, don’t get that way. I’m on your side,” he said.

“That remains to be seen,” I replied.

“Fair enough. So why did you fuck up your relationships?”

“Short version?”

“Please. For now.”

“I’m going to have to see you again?”

“Let’s stick to our topic for now, Evasive Boy.”

“The short version is that I didn’t find a partner to play in my playground.”

“Really? No one wanted to commit?” He said that “really” with the same tone of disbelief.

“There were some important differences.”

“I’m sure there were. Who focused on them?”

“I think I wasn’t ready to sacrifice my core values.”

“Values?”

“Okay. Desires. Wants. Aspirations.”

“So you sacrificed companionship instead? So you could live the life you wanted?”

“That seems a little harsh,” I said.

“The truth can be,” he threw back quickly. “But we’re not done. You may appreciate the outcome. What have people said about your little stories?”

“I would say for the most part readers have been very receptive.”

“Good Lord. ‘Very receptive?’ What in Hell are you hiding from?”

It was my turn to sigh. I don’t like talking about myself, and compliments make me uncomfortable. Especially when I am forced to recount them.

“Feedback has been very positive,” I said at last.

“Why?”

“Oh, Christ, I don’t know.”

“Bullshit.” He spat that word out like he had a mouthful.

“Because I shared something that I was seeing.”

“That you were seeing?” Now the sarcasm was thick as sour cream. “You were acting out your lifelong ambition of being a video camera? A seismograph? No editing involved, just recording?”

“Of course not. What I saw, what I felt, how it impacted me.”

“And readers liked this? Why?

“Because I engaged with them.”

“Engaged with readers, or with your subjects, with your butterflies?”

“Both, I guess.”

“Why did these people talk to you?”

“Why am I talking to you?” I shot back.

“Exactly. But let’s answer my question first.”

“Because I asked them questions?”

“Would they have opened their hearts to just anyone the way they opened them to you?”

“No, I suppose not.”

“You suppose not? Let me repeat: What in Hell are you hiding from?”

“They opened their hearts to me because… I cared about them. But they couldn’t know that so…”

He waved his hand in preemptive dismissal of my argument.

“Didn’t you once say that much of our personal communication is not verbal?”

“Yes.”

“So, let’s assume they knew that, in your own way, you loved them.”

“That’s a little strong.”

“Granted. But I’m not prepared to say that love is just one thing, and nothing else qualifies.”

“Me either,” I said, mildly offended at the implication.

“Then stop doing it.”

“You are a pain in the ass. What is it you do again?”

“I’m in the development business. So if the people you talked to knew, in some way, that you loved them, and you shared that experience with readers, you shared love, right?”

“You have stretched this far past the breaking point,” I said.

“I don’t think so. And I’m willing to bet that if you were able to summon the courage, that’s exactly what your readers would say if you asked them.”

“I thought they loved the writing.”

“There’s lots of wordsmith’s out there. I’m going to repeat the question: What were you looking for?”

“Answer’s the same. Adventure. Connection. Love.”

“Did you find it?

“In a way, I suppose. I perceived it, and by your definition, experienced it.”

“More than that. You showed love, received love, shared love.”

“But I didn’t hold love in my arms.”

“To say you have nothing because you don’t have everything seems a little selfish and small, especially coming from you: you who can love the father of a girl he abandoned for a principle; who can love an armored up tough girl trying to find fairness in a world where it’s in short supply; who can find love for a drug and alcohol addled cripple who can’t keep his pants above his knees, an old surfer chasing the future as if the past did not exist. I’m leaving out your daughters and all the others because they are too obvious. All that love, and you want to hold it in your arms?”

“I want to be held.”

“You are a writer. You need to hold yourself. That’s what we do.”

“We?” I asked.

“Just a second. Let me track down the attendant. I need a Coke.”

Of course, he never came back. The plane was full. I walked the aisle back to the bathrooms, saw people come and go out of each. I looked into first class until the attendant chased me out. I asked if a man had come up and asked her for Cokes, and she said no one had, besides me.

I know he didn’t get off the plane before I did. I thought once I caught a glimpse of him, but I was mistaken. But my guess is that I will bump into him again, somewhere out on the road, probably chasing butterflies.

End

Paradise

Vicente and Johanna found paradise nine years ago, but they may still get out. The loan will be paid this year and who knows… maybe someone else needs a chance to own a hotel where soft breezes caress with a cashmere touch, flowers bloom even where abandoned, the surf a playground offered for free.

It was a long time since breakfast and I’d said goodbye to Bocas in Panama. The water taxi took at least a half hour, then there was the bus to Costa Rica. The walk across the bridge over the river border was surreal, gaps between the planks and rusted girders big enough to swallow a foot right up to your waist.

The shuttle was newer and very comfortable. I opened the window.

“Close windows, please: Air conditioning!” said the young driver’s assistant riding shotgun.

We went through banana plantations, thousands of bunches grown beneath broad leaves, in blue bags to protect the fruit from insects. Every once in a while we’d motor past a group of workers surrounded by piles of green bananas on the side of the road.

When I got to Puerto Viejo, the sandwich board on the sidewalk said “A good day starts with a great cup of coffee” and pointed upstairs. It seemed written espressoly for me. Sorry. The cafe was owned by an Italian baker (with a pencil thin mustache!) on the second floor of a dilapidated building I mistakenly thought was on the main drag when the shuttle dropped me off in downtown.

“Eeees hot, whew, no? Not often theeees hot,” he said.

“You are Italian?” I asked him,

“Why YES!” he exclaimed, surprised. I was thumbing through the guide, asked him for directions and he recommended a hotel just up the street. The little cabinas were $35 and buried in this lovely jungle garden. Aside from the isolation of the cabinas, the heavy thick foliage meant there would.be.no.breeze. If I wanted air conditioning, it was $60.

That was a surcharge that just seemed unreasonable. There was something about the desk clerk. I couldn’t quite put my finger on it, then. It felt like a soft resentment, but I let it go, thinking it was just a matter of style. I had a place for the night.

“If you want a second night, I need to know by nine in the morning,” the clerk said.

“I’ll let you know,” I replied.

Because it was close, I checked out a hotel around the corner. The clerk was attentive, the rooms she showed me were on the second floor, so if there was a breeze it might at least rustle the curtain. There were comfortable chairs in a tiled common area, coffee available all day, brewed to order, and a dog who was a tennis ball junkie, but subtle about it.

I told her I would check in the next day and walked toward downtown for a real lunch.

I’d gone about a block before I realized just how hot it had become. I turned around and went back to the first hotel and asked if she would let me out of my stay.

“You want to leave?” she said, and without another word got my $50 bill out of the drawer, I gave her back the exact change she had given me. The actual coins. I checked into the absolutely spotless hotel owned by Vicente and Johanna, instead. I was told to take my flip flops off before I walked upstairs to the rooms and I’d need my key to get in after 8 p.m.

Vicente is from Chile, Johanna from Germany. They met when Vicente was studying and working in Germany. They wanted to be someplace tropical, talked about going to Chile, traveled around the world for nearly a year on plane tickets that did not cost much more than round trips from Germany to Chile and back.

They stayed in this very hotel in Puerto Viejo. It was for sale. They bought it. That was nine years ago. It will be paid off this year.

The streets of Puerto Viejo are confusing by day because they connect to a road that wraps around a small point on it’s way south. So you can walk down two streets that are perpendicular to each other and end up on the same road, like leaving the center of a circle along two right angle radii. You still hit the same perimeter, just in two different places.

At night it’s even more confusing, because landmarks seen in the daylight disappear. The shops are open and brightly lit, selling hats and T-shirts and hammocks and beach cloths and dresses and artisan bracelets and necklaces. Every other storefront is a restaurant or a bar, vendors cook chicken and beef kabobs on the corner, fanning charcoal with a paper plate until it spits and glows and sears the meat, and sell them for $2.

The main road is both highway and sidewalk, because the sidewalk is broken and narrow and occupied in places by booths selling hats and T-shirts and hammocks and beach cloths and dresses and artisan bracelets and necklaces. Motorbikes zip between pedestrians picking their way along the edge to avoid being whacked by a car, SUV, delivery truck or giant regional bus. Rasta music blares from speakers, Ultimate Fighting shrieks from a wall of TVs.

Everywhere the smoke of marijuana, incense, street food, smoldering leaves and burning plastic blends like a carcinogenic haze.

I couldn’t find Laslows to have the fish dinner I promised myself. I went back to a spot I had seen.

“You probably want the salad?” said the waiter, pointing to the cheapest thing on the menu.

“No, I would like the chicken and rice,” I said.

“Oh, the CHICKEN!” said the waiter. I could not figure out why he seemed to resent I was sitting at a table in his restaurant facing the scene on the street.

“What would you recommend?” I asked, trying not to reflect the attitude.

“We are a fish market,” he waved at the counter. “The sea bass is very good.”

So I had the sea bass. It was okay, too.

I threaded my way back through the smoke, noise and traffic to my hotel. I fell asleep late because I’ve developed an addiction to ginger ale and cola in Costa Rica and the sugar lights me off for at least a couple of hours. And I needed to write about  Bocas. The burning smell was not mitigated by being away from the main drag. In fact, it was worse at the hotel. I went into my room when the mosquitoes started drilling into my legs.

It was the dogs that woke me up. Not the hotel dogs, who muttered their barks, but dogs from the house just below and a little back from my window. There were two of them. Excited. Shrill. Tied up. Running back and forth the length of their rope yipping, yelping, whining barking. Between the two of them, it was a cacophony of anxiety.

I looked out. There was a large black man working in the yard. The dogs seemed to want his attention, but he was deaf to them. They ran back and forth, back and forth, ran at him, stopped just before their tether would have snapped them around by the neck, did it again and again and again and again.

After working for a while I walked down to buy the beach cloth I’d promised myself, huge, red and gold with bright suns vying with moons for attention. But the woman who had it wasn’t there, and the ones who were there did not have what I wanted, though what they did have cost much less.

I walked the mile and a half down to a beach I’d been told was worth visiting. I realized I’d not eaten and was ravenous,  got a quarter chicken with rice and a delicious ginger laced lemonade from a street vendor with dreadlocks. I sat on the sand near speakers booming out a wonderful Reggae I’d never heard. A Black woman, a girl really, walked up.

“You want a $10 massage? I got the table set up.”

I’d walked past her table on the way to the sand, she was working on a very sunburned white guy. The sign said, “Massage $30, locals $20, backpackers $10.”

“No, gracias, I’m going to finish my lunch.”

She shrugged and headed down the beach.

A father played with his son in the waves. Dad was hugely muscular and ebony black. His son was alive with energy, chasing the boogie board up the beach when the small waves got it away from him, lifting his feet out of the water back to dad, washing sand from the bottom of the board as soon as he could. Dad would reach down for his hand and they would walk again back out to deeper water.

As I walked back toward town, young white guys bragged about how hammered they were. It did look like it was going to be a long, long Saturday for them.

I followed a family through a grove of dark and gnarled trees back toward town. Thier littlest boy tripped and fell right in front of me. He was silent for a moment then started to wail in a voice every parent knows. I bent over and set him back up on his feet without him knowing what happened. He looked up at me in silence and then ran to mom, who gave me a warm smile and said, “Gracias.”

In the afternoon I talked to Vicente. I told him I needed to go back to San Jose the next day or the day after, and asked him about transportation.

“Which day do you want?”he asked.

“It really doesn’t matter,” I said.

He tried to call, but there was no answer on a Sunday. “I will keep trying and let you know,” he said.

That evening I found Laslows.  I’d walked by it at least a half dozen times the night before. Locals said Laslows had the best fish dinner in Puerto Viejo, if not all of Costa Rica, or maybe the Caribbean. Laslows looked very much like Mama Mias Pizza next door. That first night I thought they were the same restaurant and didn’t ask, which is why I didn’t find it. The next night I asked.

Laslows doesn’t have a sign, because everybody knows where it is. Laslows isn’t always open, because sometimes Laslow doesn’t catch any fish. And when Laslows is open, there is only one dish on the menu: the fish just caught by Laslow and prepared the way Laslow prepares fish by the guy Laslow trained. It is served to people who know about Laslows and are sitting at one of four small tables or three tiny stools at a “bar” which is mostly a half dozen bottles of booze on the counter and another half dozen bottles or so on tiny shelves behind the bartender who “can make anything anybody orders.”

Including drinks for people dining next door at Mama Mias, if they ask.

Laslow looks Italian with broad shoulders, bald head and mustaches. He plays with an unlit cigar as he sits in the corner; his tiny wife washes an occasional dish but looks like she feels out of place and the Black girl beside her seems to do most of the work. Laslow’s blond, tall and skinny son, Robbie serves the meals and talks about putting the fish they don’t cook and serve into an onion bag with a hook and pulling up a 100 lb. grouper. He pulls out his phone and shows the photograph.

Robby is moving nearly as fast as the tall, good looking bartender who is from New York but upstate and talking so fast I can barely catch the words about his camping in Oregon with his girlfriend he didn’t even take his camping gear figured he’d buy it there but she just hated the cold and the wet until about the third night after he taught her to build a fire with one match and she did it the first time even he didn’t do it the first time he tried and she really loved camping after that everything gets so mellow with no hassles about finding motels whatever…

Laslows was worth it, when I found it that second night. Best meal I’d had in a month.

The next day, I found the woman with the beach cloth I wanted, and she beat me at negotiating. When we’d done the deal I smiled.

“Gracias, Senora,”

She smiled wide and shook my hand.

“Mucho Gusto,” and I think she meant it. I headed back to the beach for an obligatory sit on the sand on my new cloth. One of the most beautiful women I’ve ever seen was sitting nearby, her dark skin smooth, nose prominent, her dreadlocks pulled back and wrapped in the rainbow weave used by so many here that it no doubt has a name.

At first she was carefully eating a quarter chicken like the one I’d had the day before. I noticed her forearms were longer than mine, her muscles more pronounced. She must have been well over six foot two. When she was done, one of the ubiquitous beach dogs walked up and nosed the container. She reached over and with the most gentle caress possible, stroked the back of the dog’s head while talking to him so softly it must have been a whisper. The dog wagged its tail.

Eventually she opened the carton and let the dog lick the contents, then stood, took the container to the garbage, came back and sat on the sand where she started writing in a journal of sorts. The already filled pages were ragged, which meant she’d been working on whatever this was for many months, at least. She would write a few words, look out at the sea where her daughter played, then mouth the words she was writing as if tasting them, and write some more.

I wanted to to ask what she was writing, of course, but I was intimidated by both her grace and her concentration.

Her daughter ran up crying. The woman adopted a look of concern, leaned back for a moment for a better view of her daughter’s lip or nose, I could not be sure. Reassured that the injury was not significant but recognizing that the tears still were, she unwound a large scarf or small beach cloth the same color as mine, wrapped it around her wet daughter, and held her in her lap.

She didn’t say much, the holding was the communication.

Eventually the little girl released herself from the embrace, stood up out of her mother’s arms and ran off, safe again and ready to explore the world, once again. Everything this woman did flowed from a languid, perfectly pitched intention to whatever the need was at the moment.

I still could not ask what she was writing. Eventually she got up, asked something of the man who was spinning Reggae, waved in the direction of her husband or partner or daughter I couldn’t see and disappeared.

When I got back to the hotel, Johanna called out to me.

“I made your decision for you. You are going tomorrow on the 2 p.m. shuttle. There was only one seat left.”

“That’s perfect. Thank you,” I said.

I stayed up later than I intended, working even though I’d skipped colas with caffeine, but I did finally fall asleep. It was the screaming that woke me up.

Men’s screams and shouts at first, it sounded like it was right in front of the hotel. Men screaming and yelling and shouting in Spanish. Then a woman screamed several times. They weren’t fake screams, it sounded like she was suffering from violence. Then again, “Aller! Aller!” Or something like that. I expected to hear gunshots or sirens, but there was neither. Eventually it stopped.

The next morning I was on my fourth cup of coffee or so. Johanna came out with a towel and wiped away two cat hairs that had landed on the glass at some point. I asked about how they came to own a hotel here in Caribbean paradise.

“You take wonderful care of it,” I said.

“Yes, well, we try. This is our home, too,” she said.

“Then you heard the screaming last night, too.”

“Ah, yes. It doesn’t happen as often as it used to,” she said. Apparently one of the husbands of the neighboronthecorner returns periodically. Last night he was run off by one of neighboronthecorner’s sons. I wondered if it was the one who smoked enough reefer it was possible to get high on the other side of the fence separating the properties.

“For the first three years, one of us was here at all times,” Johanna said. She and Vicente never left together. Not to go to dinner. Not to walk the dogs on the beach. The neighboronthecorner was difficult. One of the men, I didn’t get if was one of the sons or one of the husbands, regularly peed near or through the fence on the back of the hotel’s coke machine.

“I asked if he could stop peeing on our machine. They said, ‘You want I should kill you?’ ” Johanna said.

As to the dogs belonging to neighborwiththedogs, at first there was only one dog. Then there were two. Johanna said she asked if the dogs could at least be moved to the front yard, but was told they had to protect against burglars, presumably those entering the property from the highly secure hotel where I was staying.

“It’s just a lie,” Johanna said. “The reason they don’t put them in the front yard is they would bother the Tico across the street. The Tico would just kill the dogs. I’ve been told many times I should just kill the dogs, but of course I am not going to do that.”

I said there is a certain disadvantage being one who plays by the rules. She looked at me a little differently for a moment. I mentioned the burning plastic.

“It is easier to burn it than carry it away,” she said.

Johanna has been in Puerto Viejo for nine years. She told me she did not have a single friend in the community.

She said she understood the resentment. “The government of Costa Rica sent no money here. Ever. They didn’t even let Blacks to the other side of the country until the 1960s,” she said.

“Vicente has tried. He tried to get them to stop burning, explaining it was so bad for the health. ‘You don’t like it go back to your country,’ he was told. He found out there was a machine here that ground up branches? He got a couple of people to help for a couple of weeks, but then no one showed up, and the machine didn’t show up again.”

Vicente wanted to talk when he heard me mention a sailboat. Vicente is thinking about a sailboat, too. The loan is paid off this year.

Vicente told me his dream had been to start what he called a “university” in Puerto Viejo, but I think he meant a trade school. Right now Vicente is teaching Spanish to foreigners. He wanted to provide an education to locals so young men and women could learn to be electricians, plumbers, maintenance workers.

When I said I didn’t think education could work without opportunity, he said, “There is much opportunity!” None of these professions had someone who would show up and do the work.

As someone who has done very little of most of these, I wondered whether my skill set would be useful here. I thought about it for a little less than half a moment. I thought about The Italian baker. Johanna. The drunk white guys on the beach. The quiet air of resistance, if not resentment I felt below the surface. The smell of burning plastic.

“But no,” Vicente said at last. His dream of providing opportunity and an education here would leave with him. The heros of the youth of the town were drug dealers and robbers, men with guns, girls, and machismo. The bad guys were guys like him, or me, or Johanna who had come to town. We made people feel bad because we expected them to show up for work, do what they say they were going to do, when they say they would do it, Vicente said.

On the way out I met a woman from Norway, a hydraulic engineer. She had just finished working on a project to rebuild a hydroelectric dam in Liberia destroyed by the civil war. Her task mostly done, she was told to take a month off. She and I laughed about learning to watch where you walk or put your hands in countries where poisonous snakes were often fatal.

Then we got to the real snake. She told me there had been many injustices in the distribution of wealth when Liberia was founded. This she could understand, but what was just shocking to her was the attitude of “successful” Blacks toward their less successful Black neighbors. Having suffered from racism, they were racist.

“It was just awful. They would say things you would never hear anywhere else.”

“They regarded the differences not as a result of chance or opportunity, but proof of inferiority?”

“Yes. And what they don’t own is run by the Lebanese, including much of the government.”

“I thought Liberia was supposed to be a return of Blacks to a country, a redress of slavery, without racism, a land of opportunity for the oppressed. I thought it was a success,” I said.

“That’s what I thought, too. That’s what’s in all the books. It’s simply not true,” she said.

I wondered how those men on the side of the road next to piles of bananas felt when we drove past in our air conditioned newer Toyota shuttle. I wondered what the woman at the first hotel thought when I came back and untook my room. I wondered what the waiter really thought when I tried to keep my budget leaner than my waistline.

There I was, complaining about paying too much for air conditioning none of them could ever afford, no matter how hot or sultry the day; wondering why the food was so expensive, forgetting they have to eat, too; dickering over a $2 difference for a beach cloth because I didn’t want to be taken advantage of by a woman who’d lost her history, had no hope for the future, and faced injustice she could never conquer.

Resentment? Imagine that.

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.

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.

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.