10.5 – 10.12
“Ants control the Universe,” Patrick quipped. We had been dropped off at Cahuita National Park, a stretch of jungle along a small peninsula, which has a trail all the way to the point. Leaf-cutter ants were marching along, some with bits of leaves and some with flower petals. Their highways, wide and pre-cut by those who marched first, were as bustling as any downtown. Ants are everywhere, many different species, and if you stand in one place too long, they’ll find you.
The trail was sensory overload. When visiting Florida a year ago, we went for a hike in an area with alligators. We never saw any but my anxiety was boiling enough to make my lungs feel small. Here at the park, what slowly ate away at my mental fortitude were the spiders and the notion that pit vipers could be lurking among the detritus. For a while the trail was wide and relatively separate from the jungle. After the first mile or two, the trail became narrow and creepy. The canopy was thick and the jungle encroached, roots swelling across the path. It was obvious most tourists turned around right then, satisfied with the open view of the beach.
White-faced Capuchin monkeys could be heard chatting. Signs in Spanish dictated to not feed them. Toucans, green parrots, and other exotic birds were constantly wailing, from sweet seduction to obnoxious crooning. Small rat-like squirrels were bounding from limb to limb or into another tree, tails twitching. Boardwalks appeared to momentarily raise us from the jungle floor. Giant blue-winged butterflies were flitting by, silent and immune to the chaos. Cobalt blue sand crabs with white bellies, as small as coins and as large as baseballs, hid at the mouth of their holes, shadowed by flora and woody, drooping vines. A river was to our right, seeping through the mud, the sea to our left, lightly lapping up white sand. Fig trees grew wild and thick, their trunks comprised of muscular cables, with roots like sandstone fins, jutting wavelike from the floor two feet or more. We walked carefully as a jet-black hawk tore from its perch.
A newborn turtle appeared on the trail, its shell beautifully patterned like a geodescent ornament. And ants, always. Hermit crabs. Termite nests, large and knobby. Small black lizards and green basilisks. The trail led us briefly to the shore. We stepped over fallen coconut trees and various other palms. The ocean is rising, eroding the coastline, the butts of trees like ghosts of a shipwreck in the shallows.
Then of course, we found the spiders. Fancy spiders were few. Golden silk orb weavers, the largest web-dwelling spiders in Costa Rica, were everywhere. The trail weaved around them, beneath them, and uncomfortably close to their perfect yellow nets. Deep breaths were many as I followed Patrick. I kept my arms close, felt like a cat tiptoeing through the garden. I glanced to my right, my arm six inches from another green abdomen as large as my thumb, with yellow spots, long, delicate black and yellow legs, patient and watching from the eye of her web; me, probably just a shadow in her vision. It took a lot of focus to keep myself from a panic-induced cringe.
We eventually made it to another river mouth and decided to call it quits, maybe a mile shy from the original goal. We both were enduring old foot injuries and didn’t want to be miles away in the jungle if something were to flare up. An excuse, maybe, as I was also nearing the end of my ability to keep anxiety to a minimum. An animal jumped out of a tree onto the trail ahead and I yipped. Realizing it was just another squirrel, I laughed. I was almost embarrassingly on edge. Spiders are frankly my kryptonite, and the constant glancing around, side to side, up and down, remembering to watch your step – I could feel the cortisol pumping thick through my veins.
It’s pouring rain and there’s no way to shut the noise out. You are part of the land, the weather. When the sun isn’t out, nothing dries. I haven’t been sleeping very well. All the sounds, the bumps, sensations of things crawling on you, even if it’s imaginary. My subconscious is busy. The jungle never rests. Hot naps. You wake sweaty and covered in a humid slime. The wood floor creaks when you walk and you feel a slight sway in this house, high on its stilts. Gecko poop is always settling onto your things, or right under your bare feet. You sweep, again. You eventually get used to the bugs. You dust them off casually at dinner, do what you can to prevent ants in the kitchen, find frogs in the bathtub and let them be.
Next door to Johnny’s house is the Tree of Life wildlife sanctuary, owned and run by Johnny’s step-mom, Patricia. It houses numerous animals from two-toed sloths to monkeys and raccoons. There’s a peacock, a pond with snapping turtles, kinkajous, a jaguarundi, and for a short while they had a baby anteater. All the animals were rescued from habitat destruction, injury or found orphaned in the wild, often brought by the government. There are also many ornamental plants and trees, black pepper vines, cinnamon, lemongrass, plants used to make perfumes or for use in deodorants. There’s also an old concrete trough, filled with murky water, leading to a decorative fountain at the end. The concrete is completely overrun with moss. Roots from plants nesting in the mesh awning above stretch down into the water, the large coy slowly making their rounds.
The days feel long. We swim at the beach then maybe watch a movie on Netflix. We cook and walk around the wildlife sanctuary. We help Johnny and Todd make chocolate bars, from harvesting the cacao beans, fermentation, to winnowing the chocolate nibs from the shells, grinding and mixing, tempering and pouring into molds – a process that takes more than a week, from tree to table.
Then there are days where we find ourselves with nothing to do. “You’re bored in a place people dream of going?” my friend Mike messaged back to me. It either rains or we feel completely unmotivated. So we read, for hours. Nap in the hammocks downstairs. Watch Johnny play video games on his PlayStation, or we just get lost in conversation. Despite the occasional boredom, we feel content. We came to rest injury and experience the Caribbean. People joke about how during a honeymoon you really get to know your partner, as you’re practically spending every moment together. But Patrick and I have been in this position before, during a climbing road trip that took 3 months. I’ve pooped in the woods in front of him (TMI, I know). And thankfully we make it work well. He truly is my best friend, and if we need time for ourselves, we read or go for a run alone. Patrick also spends time with Johnny while I write. It works out great.
It is a chorus of tiny glass bottles, clanking and clapping together. High-pitched and singing in waves, back and forth across the yard, like an old cart full of empty milk bottles, rattling down the street. I do not know what insect makes these sounds, but they appear every night and are just as loud as the crickets and frogs. Lightning flashes in the distance. Thunder rolls low and slow. More rain.
“I do have other dreams – there is more to life than climbing, surfing, or dating,” Johnny voiced earlier in the day. He is restless in Costa Rica once again and already scheming for business ideas or simple travels back in the U.S. and Mexico. “I’m going to Potrero Chico soon, and I might not come back!”
We had iguana stew for dinner, pressure cooked and prepared by Juan, one of the main workers for Todd. Juan is a renaissance man. He helps Johnny and Todd build houses, he helps them make chocolate, fish, fix whatever needs to be fixed, plays soccer on a local team, and surfs. “I don’t have much but I am happy. I live close to my friends and that makes me happy,” Juan declared when we entered his house. He was right, he did not own much at all. His house was small and crowded with his children, the kitchen narrow and open to the back yard. His sons are learning to surf and his wife runs a restaurant in town. Workers in this town sometimes only make $14 a day, yet the cost of food at the grocery store is only a fraction cheaper than prices in the U.S. Tourists can afford it, but the residents often cannot. We traded 2 large beers for the iguana stew, a fair and happy price for Juan Loco, his nickname.
We wake up pre-dawn to prep for a day of deep water fishing. The howler monkeys begin to let out airy, raspy howls, deep from hollow throats. An eerie rap of heavy hoots and wails, as if monsters or zombies were spawning from the trees. They rant on to dispel the coming of dawn, but it always comes, and they silence their woes for a while.
The first time we went fishing on the mar, the water was glass. With no wind, the surface gently reflected morning light. I was nervous at first – I didn’t grow up around the ocean, and honestly it terrifies me. I’ve faced fear in the past, forcing myself to swim through 6-foot waves in Nicaragua. But I suppose it’s the stereotypical unknown. Wide, deep, and sometimes deadly.
The sky was overcast and made for a pleasant morning of puttering around, trolling our fishing lines behind us. With no luck on the shelf, we sped our way out to where the shelf ended, with hundreds of feet below us. There we caught a heavy wahoo, one of the fastest fish in the ocean. It took Todd more than five minutes to reel it in. Johnny had to reverse the boat at times to keep the line from snapping. Todd drew it close and when you could see its color, Johnny used the gaff in one fell swoop, launching the 27-pounder into the boat. Johnny grabbed the ironwood club and with a few hard hits, the fish was dead. That night we had the freshest sashimi I’d ever had. Then a few days later we fried up some filets. So damn good.
This time lightning flashed along the horizon. Rain was imminent. We decided to try anyway. Johnny slowly backed the trailer into the sea while Patrick held the bow line. The waves looked choppy. We tried to pick up speed on our way out to sea, but the boat was bouncing, catching air and dropping like a rollercoaster, hitting hard and jolting the brain. Spray hissed into our faces. The chop was real, so we bailed.
My mind is a busy poem. I’ve been dreaming every night. I dreamt last night that a man’s heart was ripped from his body and put into some sort of juicer. It ended before the final result was revealed but there was an aura of purification. The pulp, excess dimension.
Last night there was also a very large roach flying from wall to wall, as large as a finch. Patrick stood on top of a barstool and sprayed it with poison. It immediately leaped and landed on his neck. In pure abandonment, Patrick flailed his arms, fell to the ground yelping, spastic and entirely beside himself, lost to instinct. I shouted, “Love, stop!” It pierced his consciousness and he immediately looked at me, having fallen still. He admitted being utterly grossed out, especially since he had just sprayed it with poison. He found it on the floor and he used a shoe to smash it. It detonated. I couldn’t believe what had just happened. We both started laughing.
“I logically understood that it couldn’t hurt me, but my brain went primal in that instant and there was no stopping it,” he chuckled. We settled into the loveseat and started watching What Dreams May Come with Robert Williams. I cried and squeezed Patrick’s arm the whole movie.
The sun was out and the sea, calm. Todd drove the boat to the edge of a coral reef that follows the shore of Cahuita National Park. Patrick and Johnny immediately jumped off, the water a bit cloudy from a recent rainstorm. I stood at the bow, the water seemingly far below me. “Jump in Sara!” the boys called. I hate jumping off things! I nervously giggled and stared at the silhouettes of the reef. This is silly, I thought, I’m not really that high at all. I rock climb but I can’t jump off a small fishing boat into a soft, aqua vastness? I finally jumped, we laughed. Patrick had his snorkeling goggles and we passed them back and forth. I had never seen coral reef before, and it was virtually alien. Small colorful fish darted about and into holes. The coral was red or brown, brain like and haunting. We didn’t have much time to play, so we climbed back into the boat. But right before Patrick returned he noticed a large school of fish. He started swimming towards them with his goggles, then saw a large shadow beneath. “There’s something big following these fish!” he exclaimed, pulling the mask off his face, “We should get out of here!”
Later that day Johnny drove us to a river with a waterfall and swimming hole. The water looked like chocolate milk, absolutely no visibility. It was colder than the sea as well. We swam to the waterfall and Patrick and Johnny crawled behind it, using the rocks to crawl. I couldn’t even get that far in without being blasted violently in the face with water, so I stayed outside. We then climbed a short way up to a ledge. Johnny jumped first. “It’s a bit shallow here, jump more to your right!” He yelled up at Patrick, who didn’t hear him and leapt. He came up laughing hysterically. “My knees went past my ears!” he shouted, “I think I bruised my foot on a rock.” I didn’t climb up as high as them, as once again I was faced with jumping off of something. But I was feeling confident. Having heard Johnny I stayed right and didn’t hesitate much. Rather, I didn’t let myself think about it at all. I jumped into the brown water, ecstatic that I was confronting myself.
The clouds began to drizzle. A local guide was telling two female tourists in bikinis that the mud was therapeutic and good for the skin. So they stood there wiping mud all over their bodies, while he watched. I wondered if it was just a trick on his part. They were thin and beautiful and rubbing mud all over each other. One of the girls, having watched me climb up to the ledge to jump, then tried to do the same. She couldn’t climb it, and I felt bad. We all watched her flail around, mud-bodied. Sometimes I forget how climbing has changed me. I liked that I inspired her to at least try, and try she did.