Costa Rica, Part 4: The Undulate and the Imaginary


The undulate sea lifts us up and down. Soft, salty belly. We are flecks of flesh roving the coral reef. Our goggles dig in beneath our noses and my jaw wears from biting the snorkel mouthpiece. This world is so bizarre. Large mazes of brains, bulbous and alien in their nature, and striking fans, ripples solidified into living bodies. The depth varies from 15 feet to only a few as you roll over a wave, risking bites of coral or an impaling from urchins. Kelp, colorful fish, lobster, eel, and tiny jellyfish no larger than quarters – a world of brown, orange, taupe, and red all mixed with rays of sunlight. Some of the coral is dead, their algae long gone and their bones, haunted. Others, I’m sure, are stressed from warming water. Coral can sometimes survive bleaching events, so maybe there’s still hope.

I have never been to a coral reef. We swim around for a good while, using a stand-up paddle board as our buoy and rest station. Johnny and Patrick fashioned hooks to draw out lobsters with, but no luck. The jellyfish make me nervous. They float just as I do, but they are oblivious to this universe, to their color, transparency, and their ability to inflict pain. Passive, yet present. They are ghostly, like serendipitous memories suddenly appearing to warn you, to change you, remind you of your flesh. Then they become sirens, tempting you to watch their slow effervescence as streaks of sun make them glimmer. You casually think about touching their soft bodies, but swim on determined to get away until suddenly there’s another by your arm, then your leg – their pale, pink essence like little ocean flowers. Delicate, round, unforgiving. I watch Patrick’s fin rip one apart. It becomes raw egg in this salty soup, strung apart and evermore unconscious.

The constant swelling and deflation of each wave begins to make Patrick sick. More so, he cannot use his snorkeling goggles with his glasses, so he’s constantly squinting and trying to focus his eyes. I had come to rest on the paddle board and now see Patrick swimming towards me, mask off, expressionless and pale. I, too, was beginning to feel icky but I sat there analyzing the coming symptoms of sea sickness, understanding cause, and eventually forgetting about it. I had it good, but Patrick can’t see farther than a few feet at a time. He swims off back to shore. Johnny and I follow slowly, taking in the reef as we go. It’s easy to panic in the ocean, easy to feel afraid, definitely for me. There were moments today where water was seeping into my mask, I needed to fix it, but the reef was too close to sit upright and tread water. The aspect of keeping your mental steadiness in check made this experience seem even more wild. But I let these moments wash and pass over me – through me, rather. Then I’d look off into the deep, into that perfect unknown and I’d begin imagining shadows of shark or barracuda. I never saw them, but a shadow in the mind was more than enough…for it is the mind that we believe.

10.13 – 10.15

Butter, vanilla, candy-like tart all wrapped inside a yellowing peel. These are the bananas here. Dynamic flavors that bananas at home lack. Johnny had brought us a whole bunch, still connected to the flower stem, and we hung it until they ripened. It took over a week, but once they started changing color, we knew we had to eat them in a matter of days. We ate so many. We even cooked with remaining green ones, made chips and fries, or threw them in stews to take the place of potatoes.

Bully is the big-boned bulldog pup. He’ll see you or hear you and come running full speed, always trying to jump on you. Every afternoon we’d hear Todd or Johnny calling for him, for a half hour sometimes. He’d run off through the jungle or be wandering close by, completely minding his own business despite his owner’s calls. Patrick wrestled him a few times after he tried to repeatedly launch himself upon me, scratching my legs. He’d pin him down and speak to him with a deep, firm tone. But once Patrick let him up, Bully would bounce away, tongue hanging, like the child he was.

One of Johnny’s favorite fruits is the mamón chino, also known as rambutan, brought over from Indonesia. It’s a fruit related to the lychee, with a soft, sweet berry and one large seed, but the rambutan is encased in a stiff red peel with hair-like tentacles.

One of the strangest and most exotic looking fruit I’ve ever seen, but man is it addicting. We’d buy 2-3 kilos and devour them in a day. Another tasty treat is the Jamaican patty (pronounced pah-tee), a savory beef and spice filled pastry much like an empanada, and their ale, a sweet ginger drink.


Cloudy skies once again greet the morning light. Toucans bounce from tree to tree, dropping dew from the leaves. There is stagnant, humid air. A bat hangs on the side of the house, ready for sleep. Laurel’s rugs are truly paintings: large leaf prints, usually ferns, pressed in browns, yellows, and greens. Gentle traces of their contours, like fossils. For me it leaves a sense of nostalgia, for what once was and is now, forever painted for our feet.

There is no electricity today. ICE (pronounced ee-say) is the monopoly on electricity here in Costa Rica, and they’re trimming trees and foliage near all the power lines. The whole town is unplugged. Having been warned, we were able to fill up all our pots and bottles with water, as the water is pumped directly from the well here. We cook up breakfast and then find ourselves bored and staring at the walls. So we decide to walk around and watch insects. We visit a large spread of antlions, find ants and throw them into the traps. The ants are too big, however, so we don’t successfully feed any antlions. But it is neat to see them throw sand around. “You think the leaf-cutters are big? Wait till you see the soldiers that come out when you stomp your feet by their ant hill,” Johnny says. Patrick’s eyes light up and they start giggling like little boys. We follow a trail of ants back to their enormous dirt hill. Johnny begins stomping his feet and pounding his hand close to the hole. Instantaneously ants as large as the end of my pinky emerge, their heads larger than the rest of their body, mandibles ready to chew through skin and meat. “You can use these guys for sutures!” Patrick expresses in amazement. Johnny casually picks one up. “You just grab its head and it won’t get’cha.” Patrick snatches one too. Johnny then demonstrates the power of their mandibles, letting it cut through a large callous on his hand. Like butter.

img_1962“Leaf-cutter ants are pests to us here. They’re everywhere. They destroy our cacao plants and dig their tunnels around our land and the soil becomes shit. You’re walking and suddenly your foot sinks. I try to get rid of them but they’re so resilient and their populations are enormous, in the millions,” Johnny explains. And he was right, no amount of child-play with these ants will impair their numbers. “So…,” he continues, “let’s make them duel?” Johnny and Patrick giddily run to the concrete patio beneath the house.

“They’ll really fight their own kind?” Patrick inquires.

“Yeah they’ll fight anything at this point. They’re in full rage mode.”

Unfortunately (or fortunately, depending on how you see it) it isn’t much of a show. The next step (obviously) is to try to feed them to one of the large orb-weaver spiders. We walk around the wildlife sanctuary (which is closed to the public in the tourist off-season) looking for the biggest spider we can find. Johnny is doubtful that the spider will want it as the ants are so big, the mandibles large enough to potentially hurt her. He tosses his ant into the web and it immediately cuts its way out and drops to the ground. Patrick tosses his closer to the spider itself. She goes for it, fast and agile. We watch her hold it back with her longer legs and wrap it nicely with her smaller ones, delicately weaving the silk from her spinners. It is like watching a suitcase spinning in plastic-wrap at the airport. We gawk in awe, something you’d see on Planet Earth. She is probably absolutely ecstatic to have such a large and delicious meal, and we feel like kids learning the ways of jungle life. One show is enough, however. We’re not evil, I swear!

Banana bread cupcake with shaved coconut.

We decide to try to bake banana bread next. We ride Johnny’s scooter to the little store down the street. It’s called a soda, and is the type where it’s attached to someone’s house and you can’t walk inside, so you order things from a counter. The kind woman didn’t have any bicarbonato de sodio (baking soda) so we buy levadura en polvo (baking powder) instead. The finished product is more like a thick banana pancake, but it is still tasty. The power comes on as the sun sets and we sit to eat dinner. The bats stir, tiny ants search for crumbs, silverware continues to rust, our damp clothing from today’s swim still drapes the balcony rails. A coconut falls somewhere, with enough force to kill. A seed from a palm tree slams the metal roof and the rain gutter bends just a little more. Light fades, eyes become passive and our ears tune in. A wave of new sounds wash over the land – the nocturnal sea has returned.


Ocean to river mouth, we kayak through a miniature break in the sand. Brown river, tainted by tannins from roots and decomposing leaves. The trees stop the wind and the sun bakes our skin. The red kayaks glow as we slowly make our way around the mangroves. I can’t even begin to imagine what lives in this water or within the thickets. Billy, our guide and good friend to Johnny, pointed out large, dark birds perched low to the water. There’s so much life in and around water – of course. But eerie things. This river path loops and curves around. It continues inland, but the foliage grows closer, narrowing the inlets. “You could get stuck,” Billy adds. I was drawn to exploring, but knew I’d probably regret it. “I’d do it if I had some sort of bubble around me,” I joke, concerning myself with spiders more than caimans (small alligators).

We beach our kayaks and devour a pineapple, then paddle back out into the ocean. We take our time, as our arms are not used to this motion. We cross the coral reef, schools of fish – silver jewels glancing by. The sun pierces deep water in long spears. Billy strings out a fishing line and trolls it behind him, keeping the line between his teeth as he paddles. He catches a fish. Two men are diving and catching lobsters, their dark heads bobbing and disappearing, showcasing a stark familiarity with the sea. We make it to Playa Negra, a black sand beach, with a small break. Patrick gets excited and tries to surf his kayak. Succeeding, he paddles back out for more. I give it a try, and satisfied with my one ride I get out to pull the kayak onto shore, but a wave hits broadside and flips my kayak over and onto me, bruising my knee. I’m quick to recover and drag it out, extremely grateful for having a dry bag for my phone.

We walk up to the Reggae Bar just on the beach, order the freshest piña colada imaginable, as the woman chops up pineapple and coconut to add to the blender. We talk about coconuts and how they’re practically the camels of seeds, carrying fresh water inside them as they drift about the ocean. We watch tourists lay on the beach. Local families arrive to play, the children dark and blissful. I’ve always wanted more naturally dark skin. I see it as heritage, as I have Hispanic ancestry. I am olive, but more fair than other Chicanas. I sometimes wonder if people assume I am white down here. I don’t particularly like standing out, especially when I travel. My goal is always to blend in, respect the locals, take it upon myself to cater to their ways, not mine.

Patrick takes the kayak out again to surf while I watch from the beach. Children play in the sand. A young boy of Jamaican descent runs up to me, “Cómo te llamas?” “Sara,” I answer with Spanish pronunciation. He runs away, giggling. Children likely have nothing but family here, no high tech toys, and they are so strikingly happy. Happiness is relative.

Patrick capsizes in the shallows, losing his prescription sunglasses. I immediately get up and start wading around, the water clear enough to see through. Patrick, of course, can’t see much and is left waiting with the kayak on shore. I imagine the ocean slowly dragging them out to sea so I wade farther out. The gold frame suddenly sparks as the tide pulls out and I plunge my arm down to snatch them up before the waves return. He expresses frustration for being so dependent on glasses to see. We paddle out and return the kayaks, ride the scooter home – me, arms tightly wound around Patrick’s waist, rocks shooting out from beneath our wheels as we bounce around the dirt holes.


Wake up with dawn, sleep with the night. This is a very interesting time in my life. I fear myself more than anything else. Fear my fear, rather. The older I get, the more mortal I seem to become (duh), as most people of course feel. The innocence of youth is a lost memory. I find myself afraid of things I never used to fear. Death is an argument that sits patiently in the back of my mind, visits me on the verge of sleep, heart palpitating.

I’ve been reading Over the Edge by Greg Child (a true account of American kidnappings in Kyrgyzstan) and I’ve become slightly paranoid at night, imagining gangs of guerrillas making their way through the jungle, slicing through the window screens and tip-toeing like ninjas to our bed. A week ago there was a mass shooting at a beach in Limón, apparently drug related. But I truly knew we were far from danger here. Plus, Johnny has two sais resting on a shelf nearby. He was playing with them earlier, acting like Raphael kicking some ass, then telling stories of how he has bruised his own ribs with them.

“If you make waves, you’re going to flood someone’s boat,” Patrick assures me. “It’s just the way of the world.” I had been expressing concerns about writing plans for a book and criticism I would inevitably receive. “But I’ll be here to cheer you up, make you tea, rub your back…” he playfully adds, “No one’s gonna hurt you.”

There’s so much time to think here, about yourself, your space, your life. Is it our flesh that is arrogant or our minds? Mind is made of flesh. Are my thoughts flesh too? Is the sum of humanity nothing but flesh? I think this is why we need poets in our lives.

Two small poison dart frogs mate by the cacao trees. Their neon green spots morphing together. Below an orb-weaver’s web we find two prehistoric looking centipedes, mating. Their bodies thick and boney on top of one another.

Cahuita is an island to us now. We know what little streets it has. We know the beaches and stretches of jungle, where to find the best coconuts. I don’t mind that we haven’t traveled far and wide across this country. Rest and recovery is our primary goal. Yet Johnny offered to drive us to the next town, a more popular tourist destination, Puerto Viejo. It is the week of carnival festivities celebrating the coming of Christopher Columbus, the first European to land here. The streets were lined with vendors and restaurants. People walked and biked, cars bumper to bumper and trying to park. A light rain misted us as we picked out a place to eat. I ordered a tuna steak and Patrick got himself a burger. Sangria. Piña colada. Mai tai. The power went out and everyone continued to dine. It reminded me of one night, several years ago, in Santiago, Chile, where a power outage had left my partner and I to seek out a sushi restaurant. The power was only out for a short while in Puerto Viejo. When it came back, everyone cheered. A young man wandered in with his guitar and harmonica, played a few songs, then begged each table for money.


We fly back to California in a few days. Time has escaped us. We spend our last day in Cahuita swimming, then listening to the rain, reading and watching movies, drinking iced tea. That night I hear something screeching, similar to that of a rat. I rise from bed, Patrick fast asleep, and don a headlamp. Outside I peer into the grass from the balcony, see two eyes glowing, peering back. It is a large rodent, but I cannot quite tell what it fully looks like. Without my own glasses, it blends in with the grass, seems to be slowly and painfully crawling across the yard. Was it injured by a snake? It disappeared into the bushes and I returned to bed. Later, a sound I did not recognize was coming from beneath the house where the hammocks hang. Was it a whine from an animal? A bird? A cat gargling its throat? I tried to ignore it, think of the silhouettes of the mountains here; how glassy and pastel the dawn is over the ocean, how blue the horizon will soon be, just beyond the trees.


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