It was nearly dark when Rebecca got to the hostel. She’d flown from New York to San Jose that morning, gotten bilked taking a cab from the airport to the chaotic bus station, just caught the four-hour bus ride to Quepos.
Standing in line to check in, there was a lightness about her. The others had huge, heavy packs jammed tight with anything and everything that might be needed. She had a small, blue, worn daypack, and a tubular cloth bag over one shoulder that did not even seem full. I wondered how it could possibly carry all she’d need to Quepos.
I was working from a bench near the office, the only place with wireless access to the internet. When they arrived from the bus, I asked the group where they were from. The others were from Germany. Rebecca said, “New York, originally from Oregon.”
“Really,” I said, “where in Oregon?”
“I grew up in Portland. Now I’m from Sisters.”
“I just LOVE Sisters! I was actually raised for a few years in Bend!”
She joined me after checking in. We were soon talking about anything and everything, but my butt was sore from perching on the wood bench and I asked if we could move to the plastic chairs by the pool.
“Let me put my things away, then come back out. Do you mind?” she said.
Um, no, I didn’t mind at all, but wasn’t she too tired after all that travel? Not at all, she said.
We sat by the pool and talked. Every pause was filled by her asking another question: what I did, where I’d been, and how. Each of my questions drew at least two from her. She didn’t avoid answering, just seemed to have an insatiable curiosity about anything and everything going on around her.
Rebecca works for a Non Governmental Organization in New York, one focused on the environment. After graduating from Berkeley, she earned two Masters degrees, one in Anthropology and the other in Environmental Science. She was debating a PhD., her thesis proposal about how evolution changes itself, that the successful alter the environment that created the success, altering the next evolutionary phase.
The world was her lab. From what I could piece together, she may have spent more years on the road than at any place she called “home,” since she turned 18. Central America. Colombia. India.
We talked about Oregon, about African Palms spanning hundreds of roadside kilometers along the highway from Jaco to Quepos. They are raised for palm oil, she told me, subsidized by the U.S. taxpayer, destroying local ecosystems and often the local way of life. She said returning indigenous people to their native habitat often was a better way of protecting that habitat than walling it off in preserves.
We talked about writing, travel, disagreed about the role of poverty in raising children ready to learn.
“It’s a culture problem,” I said, not knowing the word “culture” has become a “dog whistle” flagging racism.
“What do you mean a ‘culture’ problem?”
“I mean teachers are expected to solve problems that result from changes to culture, often driven by technology. It’s not just a matter of poverty. By focusing on poverty I think we often do the wrong things for all the right reasons.”
That seemed to mollify her. She had friends in New York struggling to do meaningful work, pay the mortgage, and have a family, who give their kids a latte when they pick them up from daycare so they can spend a waking hour with them in the evening.
“That’s what I mean by it being a culture problem. We want to have children, but don’t make the sacrifices, or can’t make the sacrifices, that raising children requires. Day care may not be sufficient. It isn’t just an issue of lacking resources.”
Rebecca is the youngest of six children, of which she said, “Much, much easier than being the oldest.” That was typical, I’d learn; she looked at most events and situations in her life as a gift.
It wasn’t just that she traveled light. She seemed unburdened, without desire to pour out her story, or in need of affirmation. She absorbs, she asks. Perhaps her soul is like that round shoulder bag, with an extra dimension where the heaviness goes.
After two days in San Jose, where she would learn the priorities of groups she worked with, she was off to the Amazon to meet teams on the ground, and learn even more. She laughed out loud at herself when she said a cab driver asked if she had gotten Friday off work to come to Costa Rica, and she realized that she had completely failed to tell anyone at work she was leaving early so she could spend a couple of days exploring Costa Rica.
I asked if she would be gone for one week, two weeks, maybe a month, with everything carried in a small blue backpack and light round bag that must have an extra dimensions rather than pockets for all the things it must hold. She wasn’t sure.
She planned to go to the famous beachside Manuel Antonio Park the next day. We agreed to meet after breakfast and go together.
I almost didn’t recognize her in the lunch room, she had transformed into someone quite plain. She wore a long sundress, a shapeless ball cap, carried the blue pack. Her work in other countries, many requiring modesty, had taught her how to avoid drawing attention or giving offense.
We saw iguana, and incredible spiders. Crowds stopped to take pictures of sloths, birds, or monkeys. The sky was clear except for tall, bright white cumulus clouds offshore that highlighted the blues of sky and ocean, greens of the jungle that came to the edge of yellow sand where people played in the waves.
Some of her previous work was emotionally grinding: Interviewing Indian women from areas along the Bay of Bengal who had lost husbands, babies, or entire families to the tsunami that rolled in after the earthquake in Indonesia. Many were alone.
“Why do they choose to go on living?” I asked. She didn’t know the strictures in any one religion against suicide.
“There were a lot of tears,” she said. After doing interviews all day, she would go back to her hotel and write up reports intended to put faces on numbers that could possibly describe the magnitude, but never the depth, of suffering. It was hard, hard work in many dimensions.
At the famous Manuel Antonio beach, raccoons came up as soon as we put our packs down and pilfered a banana from hers that had been wrapped in a blue cloth napkin. The couple next to us said the raccoons actually unzipped their pack to get the goodies inside. I crossed the single cord “line” to retrieve her napkin, she laughingly called me her hero.
The spider monkey was nearly as bold, but at least he didn’t bare his teeth when we chased him away. He ran off in a gallop on all fours. I hung our packs on small branches in the tree to at least slow him down.
On a short exploration, we saw a tree dedicated to a biologist. It reminded Rebecca of a book she had read about a biologist who had studied the hallucinogens of South America, how various indigenous people regarded some of these plants as gods, and protected them from the white man.
“I missed out on the hallucinogens,” she said. “My sister was a social worker and had stories of people she worked with, and would say sometimes that drugs were the reason or part of the reason they were so screwed up. That pretty much settled that.”
I confessed to my somewhat extensive background with hallucinogens, noting that I had not had any drugs, not even a drink, in nearly 30 years.
“Congratulations,” she said, but I said that congratulations are not really in order for an act performed with a gun to my head. I asked her about children, why that wasn’t a priority for her.
“Kids would be nice, if that happens. But I don’t think it’s necessary to have children for my life to have value or meaning.”
We agreed on that, but my question was about how she avoided that self-definition, when so many women did not, for what I thought were biological reasons.
“I don’t know,” she said at first, but I pressed. Eventually she said, “When I look at the choices I’d have to make, they just aren’t that appealing.”
Later on she said, “it wasn’t really a choice. It just seemed like that was what happened. One thing kind of led to another.”
I asked if she had no desire to settle down, be with someone, if someone hadn’t asked her to do so.
“Most of the men I’ve dated were good with this, and they were doing their own thing. As to being with someone who wanted to be together all the time, I just don’t think that’s necessary or a good thing. No.” she shook her head and seemed to recoil from the idea.
“No. Just no?” I questioned.
She shook her head at the idea, again as if it gave her a shiver.
I wanted to know why she exposed herself to all that suffering, the futility of protecting an environment against money that would usually, if not always, win. “What are you going to do?” she asked back, as if the answer was simply obvious; the fight necessary even if victory beyond grasp.
I write about vibrant dreams and crushed hope to gather about me significance, I confessed. By working on behalf of women who’ve lost children, for others thrown off their land or had their culture destroyed by greed and corruption, she feels value, connection, to something important.
“Doesn’t that make us both voyeurs, in a way?” I ask, but realize quickly the question needs far more context, especially with this woman living so far out on the edge, and change my own subject.
Rebecca told me about a good friend who was writing a book, who had served in another NGO as a human shield: The job was to stick closely to a person who was a likely target of murder in a foreign land.
“Either the person already had body guards, or didn’t want them. It’s a big deal to kill someone from the U.S. She was basically protecting them with the color of her skin, and her passport.”
This same friend said one time to Rebecca, “I’m terribly intolerant of a life without meaning.”
That was the best answer.
We found another beach quite close to the first. There were places in the shade under a large tree that had dropped tiny green apples to the sand.
“Are these apples?” I asked. “They look like apples.”
The leaves of the tree, though not the tree’s shape, even looked a little like those of an apple tree.
I picked one up and carefully bit into the fruit, expecting something incredibly bitter or sour, but was surprised that the initial taste was of tropical fruit, maybe like guava, not unpleasant.
“Why are those stupid monkeys stealing Cheetos, when they have all this good fruit lying around?” I said, trying to be funny. I usually prefer Cheetos to apples, too, given a choice.
About 10 minutes later, my mouth started to burn. We had found a place mostly in the shade, Rebecca had put out her beach cloth, I was on my towel. I had the best cell reception I’d had since the airport in Houston, I read, even made an internet phone call back home.
Rebecca was reading, but before long the Kindle fell to her stomach, her hands to her side on the sand. Her mouth moved, she was talking to someone in a dream.
As the minutes went on, the burning in my mouth became intense, worse than any chili pepper I’d ever eaten. Even though I had eaten none of the flesh, I could tell some of the juice had gone down my throat. My body was generating a phenomenal amount of thick saliva to wash away the heat. I tried to read as I shooed away iguanas that were wandering surprisingly close.
I was relieved when one picked up an “apple.” If the wildlife ate them, I was on safer ground, ignoring that an iguana might have a digestive tract slightly different than mine.
The iguana spit it out.
I stood, I walked, I spit into the sand. I realized the great cellphone reception I had would probably let me look up this little fruit, and at least put my mind at ease.
The phrase in Spanish translated as, “little apples of death.” That didn’t quite put my “mind at ease.” The manchineel is one of the most poisonous trees in the world. Standing under the tree when it’s raining can result in skin blistering. Eating the little apples with the lovely scent “… may produce severe gastroenteritis with bleeding, shock, bacterial superinfection, and the potential for airway compromise due to edema. Patients with a history of ingestion and either oropharyngeal burns or gastrointestinal symptoms should be evaluated for admission in hospital…”
When Rebecca wakes up, she says, “naps are good.”
“You want the good news, or the bad news?” I ask her.
“The bad news.”
I read what I found about the “little apples of death.”
“What’s the good news?”
“I don’t know there is any.”
She shows immediate concern, but I try to put her mind at ease.
“If this is my last day on Earth, thank you for making it so enjoyable.”
She laughs, then does me one better.
“Those stupid monkeys…” she says.
“Yeah, what could they be thinking? Why raid backpacks when they have all this wonderful natural food available?” I add.
I go out into the ocean to gargle salt water. When I get back, I say, “You were sound asleep, dreaming.”
“I can fall asleep anywhere. One time I was on an airplane coming back from Colombia and sitting next to this nice man. We talked, I gave him my business card. Everyone around us could tell we were strangers. I fell asleep, and when I woke up I was completely wrapped around him, drooling on his shoulder. He called me for a year.”
“Are you a spy?” I ask, but she laughs and says she’d make a terrible spy, falling asleep on strangers.
“Or a very, very good one,” I say, but she convinces me she’s not.
She wanted to take another walk through the park, but what I read of the “little apple of death” made me want to be closer to medical help if needed, get some milk into my stomach and hit my drug supply back at the room. Nexium was one suggested treatment. I had something similar.
“You carry medicine for this?” asked Rebecca.
“You never know when you’re going to want a poison apple,” I said.
Another way of absorbing the poison was charcoal.
“What kind of charcoal?” she asked, wondering how that would work.
“I generally prefer Round Oak, but without the lighter fluid.”
“I admire your attitude,” she said at one point. “I think I would be in more of a panic.”
“Tell them I went out laughing. May I buy you dinner as compensation for missing the afternoon walk?”
“It’s a deal.”
At the hostel I took omeprazole, ate a yogurt, showered and changed, only to find that Rebecca had showered, changed, gone to the bus station to buy her ticket to San Jose, inquired at the front desk what restaurants were recommended, and was ready to go.
She wore a shoulderless long dress, a bit of lipstick, her hair free of the cap. I was stunned how she went from plain girl to such an alluring woman. Chameleon.
I sat at an adjacent side of the small square table so we could each look out at the street, so I could hear her over the din just beyond the step of the restaurant that had no barrier between tables and traffic.
At one point I asked if her heart had ever been broken, that I was sure she had broken many. She didn’t think either was true, her relationships mostly ended by a mutual consent.
“I’ve never been in a wrenching, unbalanced relationship, or ending. We’d talk about it, come to the conclusion it wasn’t working out.” She’d ended a relationship just a couple of months before, after five years. There were plans to get a place in Maine, but it just wasn’t working. He had suggested living together again in New York, but that was just a way of putting off the inevitable.
I confessed to wrenching breakups, suffering more than once from a broken heart. She asked if there was any way my marriage might have worked out, given the successful child rearing partnership, respect and affection I expressed for my ex-wife. I said no, despite the positives, we were just two too-different people.
I asked what she thought was required for a successful relationship. She turned the question around on me, which she was so good at doing. I said, shared vision and values, empathy, respect, and chemistry (letting myself think of how she looked asleep on the sand that afternoon, the balance of strength and and curve).
“You know, don’t you, that when I write my book, the stupid monkeys are going to be in it,” she said.
“You don’t think I’ll write about it?” I said. “I think ‘The Stupid Monkey’ has to be the title.”
We lingered after dinner until I saw her fidget with her purse; I paid and we went back to the hostel, where she asked if I would mind reading from her Kindle a book on the impact of modernity to religion in India, while she read another piece of my writing, from my phone. Flattered, I said yes.
After she finished reading what I wrote, we traded back and she read her book and I gazed at the day, looking forward and backward in time while trying to avoid the present. She was going north to San Jose, I was headed south, to Panama.
I was sitting next to a woman for whom I would sacrifice nearly anything, maybe everything, at another place and time; gone anywhere to have her as a partner in life, if she would have, at any time, considered having me.
But I knew, even if she were tempted, at another place and time, I would want days that would come from her life’s quest, a sacrifice she could not make.
Her presence was so fluid and free, to reach for her would be to grasp with hands at air, or water, or light. What I could fall in love with would not survive my falling in love.
Even that wouldn’t have mattered. At a different time and place, I would have risked it.
But I could do nothing about the fact that I arrived about 25 years too early, for our first and only date.