Of Beaches and Bloated Things (or, Gringos on Parade)

Costa Rica, 1987-88. Not my finest hour. In all honesty, I spent a good deal of my teenage years trying to forget we’d ever been there. Still, it had its moments, and the further removed that year becomes, the more I’m beginning to see adventure in what at the time seemed to be only disaster.

Take, for example, a little trip the Woodses and the Hoods took together to a place called Puntarenas, a beach system on the Pacific coast of the country. Its nickname, among others, is La Perla del Pacifico (the pearl of the Pacific)–God knows why. Apparently, it was discovered by none other than Sr. Ponce de Leon in 1519. After several days there, I kind of wish he’d left well enough alone…

This was my first experience with long-distance commercial bus travel. It’s actually only a two-hour ride from San Jose (the capital city) to the coast, but it felt more like several days. It was also my first experience (although, as with bus travel, far from my last) of sitting on a suitcase on the side of the highway, watching the bus’s tail-lights dwindling into the distance, wondering what my parents had gotten me into this time. Was it not bad enough that they made me leave friends and family behind and fly off to a place where we had no television, no family car, and no language skills at all (witness the ten-year-old me fleeing down a Central American sidewalk, chased by a mean-spirited dog, screaming “Help!!” over and over again to a street full of Spanish-speakers, who in all likelihood were more attuned to the entertainment value of the scene than to any danger I might have been in)? Now, here the children sat, Aaron and Dawn Hood, my sister Sara, and myself, thinking evil thoughts of present adult company. And then, it started to rain.

Anyone familiar with “rainy season” in Central America knows this name is an absolute joke. It should be called “Noah season.” It did not just rain–it poured. It was one of those storms that make you feel like there are fish out there drier than you. Through the clothes, through the skin, right down to the bone soaked. We couldn’t see anything, and I was beginning to wonder whether anyone actually knew where we were, or how to get where we were going.

To this day, I cannot really recall how it happened, but suddenly we were in the bed of a pick-up, barreling into the storm. We thumbed a ride. From a complete stranger. I still can’t quite believe it, and I was there. Dad, Uncle Charlie, Aaron and me, clinging for dear life to the back of the truck’s cab, staring into gale-force winds and a barrage of liquid birdshot. BirdSHOT, I said. Mom, Sara, Dawn, and Aunt Becky inside the vehicle, sitting with Ted Bundy for all we knew. Voices of teachers, policemen, and Officer McGruff echoed in my head: Never get into a car with strangers. Caveat: Unless you happen to be standing in the dark on the side of a Costa Rican highway in a hurricane…

Somehow, we arrived at our destination: the Chalet Bautista. Don’t get too excited. This place was a chalet like McDonalds is a gourmet patisserie. Perhaps, you say, it was the inclement weather or the darkness of night, or exhaustion from such an eventful trip that caused the C.B. to seem so bedraggled and uninviting. I think all of us would assure you, it was not. The place was just as bedraggled and uninviting by day as it was by night. I would include a picture of the place, but I couldn’t find one. It probably collapsed the day after we left.

Picture with me the following: very sparse bedroom furnishings; two stacks of bunks, one on each side; thin mattresses, no bedding; bare cinderblock walls. I took a top bunk, and the ceiling was about two inches from the tip of my nose. (I’d describe the bathroom facilities, but my brain seems to have blocked them out.) Now, in the years since then, I have left the spoiled little Yank behind. I’ve stayed in some extremely shady places, used more electric “widow-maker” showerheads than I can count (you don’t know fear–not to mention irony–until one of those explodes on you while you’re bathing), and trained roaches to guard against bedbugs. But the ten-year-old boy at Puntarenas had been out of the U.S. for four whole months (and was used to a mother who ironed couch cushions). To him, this was the back end of hell.

To illustrate, allow me to describe my experience upon waking the first morning. As you may recall, the ceiling was not far from my face. Imagine my surprise (and the infringement of my personal bubble) when I opened my eyes and looked into those of a very large, very neighborly iguana, hanging just above my head. It was close enough it could have offered me mouth to mouth following the consequent heart attack. Keep in mind that to this point the only animals I’d encountered upon waking had been stuffed and had names like Balloon and Patches. This beast responded to neither, and I’m pretty sure he wanted to stuff me.

The condition of the lodgings was so inescapably sad that I don’t really even remember that much about the beach, which was supposedly the whole reason for our trip. There is one thing, though, that we all remember. An image that is seared into my brain for all of time. I can close my eyes and see it now. An image that put, so to speak, the icing on a very unappealing cake.

I had never been to the beach before, at least not since I could remember. I was terribly excited. And I really wanted to know what that thing was, out there bobbing in the surf. A water bird, perhaps? A happy little fish leaping from the water to greet us? Or maybe, a dead, bloated dog, washed ashore just in time to scar four small children for life. Its name may not have been Balloon, but it sure looked like one. And smelled like one, too–that is, if you happened to stumble across one in a nice, ripe landfill. That one image is really the only thing that stands out clearly in my mind when I think of that trip, and it captures well the impression of it I have carried with me through the years: That dog don’t hunt.

Later on, there was an impromptu Sunday service (we were a couple of missionary families, after all) at a stone picnic table outside the Chalet. But it was for naught, at least as far as I was concerned. I only had eyes for the dog–and the large iguana now perched on the wall next to the table. Jesus loves me, this I know. Please convince my folks to go. Little ones to him belong. What’s the next thing to go wrong?

The crazy thing about this trip, though, is that after all these years it is to me a symbol of friendship. You come out of experiences like that either hating your comrades, or loving them, and with us it was the latter. The four of us kids are still friends today, almost thirty years later, and I honestly believe that this was where it all began. This adventure created a bond that cannot be broken, that still calls forth a shared sigh of disbelief when it comes into the conversation. And I wouldn’t change that for the world. So, don’t rush to judgment the next time your best laid plans gang agley. In twenty years, you may discover it was one of the best things that ever happened to you…

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