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.
“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.