The barbed wire fence was there to keep out the American travelers. The Costa Rican farmer who put it up was sick of all the naked bodies in the catarata, waterfall. These brazen young folks thought they could just strip down and dive into the plunge pool, showing off their sleek nudity to any Tico family that happened by in broad daylight.
The waterfall was a spot where the local children played, and where young couples escaped when they wanted a quiet hour of peace. And the thirteen-year old Costa Rican boys who happened to arrive at the falls when the foreign skinny dippers were there hissed and called at them through the leaves, then pounded home to their distraught mothers breathless and shouting, their faces wide with glee. It was shameless and corrupt, his neighbors fumed. It had gone on for weeks, and he was fed up with hearing the American’s careless shouts and his neighbor’s ceaseless complaints.
According to the laws of Costa Rica, it is legal for anyone to be at the waterfall. But the farmer owned the strip of property between the waterfall and the gravel path that separated his farm from the American’s farm. One morning he worked in the hot sun stringing barbed wire all along the side of his property, aware of the indignant eyes peering at him from across the path. With deliberate movements, he suspended a hammock between two coconut trees and settled himself in to vigilantly guard the boundary.
He couldn’t stay in the hammock all the time. He had to work in his fields.
It took more than a little barbed wire to deter the four twenty-something-year-olds from Pacific Northwest who had just traveled thousands of miles to this little plot of land in Costa Rica, their heads dripping with visions of bathing in the clear tropical cascades. The four of them eagerly anticipated the day when the narrow-eyed old man would retreat. They spied on him through stalks of the sugar cane patch on their side of the divide. They vowed to find a way through as soon as he left.
After three days, the farmer disappeared. They dropped their garden hoes in the grass, snatched some towels off the clothesline, and scurried across the gravel path that separated the two pieces of land. They took turns holding the wire taut for one another, and wriggled under the fence with their bellies pressed against the flattened grass. They managed to crawl underneath without snagging their bare shoulders on the rusty spikes of the fence.
“What a shame there are such poor relations between the local people and the owners of our little organic farm farm,” one of them mused as they bounced down the steep path that snaked over the ridge through the rainforest, carefully averting the red slippery clay and twisted tree roots.
They knew they had to hurry to get down this section of land to the waterfall, based on this invisible game of tag. Using hanging vines and tree trunks, they swung vertically down the narrow soil pathway like monkeys.
The four friends possessed the uninhibited idealism of young people who could afford to leave their lives in North America for a few weeks to work on a organic farm farm in the middle of the Costa Rican jungle. They were lighthearted souls who often wondered what had happened to the American wilderness, and had the vague sense that they were free spirits who would eventually lead modern society into a new age of ecological consciousness. As they made their way down the path, they laughed about the notion of drawing an imaginary line through the rainforest to claim land as a possession. Trespassing did not awaken a guilty conscience in any one of them.
It was hazy and humid in the rainforest that afternoon, with a layer of clouds stretched across the sky that kept moisture consolidated on the skin in beads of sweat. Water droplets slid down giant fanning leaves and into the water, and the rocks had a slippery sheen. Overhead, in the canopy, toucans rested serenely, their bright yellow beaks that seemed too oversized for their bodies sticking out among the greenery. Hibiscus flowers bowed their delicate crimson heads along the path, creating a curtain of trumpet-shaped furls against the dark green, lemon-scented leaves.
Most of the tiny insects that lived in the trees and grass went unnoticed by the four foreigners scaling down the ridge, but they continued milling about in a great swarm, invisible on the underside of leafy veins and in the wells of soil beneath tree roots. The two old coconut trees that loomed at the fence dutifully holding the farmer’s hammock in place, but did little more than wave their fronds in the gentle wind.
When the bold trespassers finally reached the cascade they had been dreaming about, they all fell silent in astonishment. The roar of the rushing water was deafening. It was about twenty feet high, spilling hypnotically over the outcrop above, surrounded by lush green vines and tropical vegetation all along the top. The point where the water met the perfectly round plunge pool churned with a tremendous amount of energy, creating a mist that billowed and swirled as it rose gently and shimmered with tiny rainbows.
For a full minute they gazed in awe. Their eyes followed the plants that dangled off the walls of the pool and the giant mossy rocks that jutted outward to create the wall which almost seemed too perfectly placed to be real. The water in the pool was so clear that the rounded stones at the bottom were visible. They were somehow reminded of fairy tales they’d heard as children that featured enchanted forests, or of some long-forgotten mythology from a time when people worshipped the land around them instead of going to church.
Finally, with a loud whoop one of them stripped out of his shorts and with one great leap, launched himself off the rock he was standing on and into the water with a splash so great that the other three were soaked before they had a chance to move out of the way. They followed promptly, leaving their soil-sodden clothes limp on the rocks. The peace of the cascade was shattered with their echoing whoops and splashes.
There are several very amusing things about swimming in a waterfall pool in the middle of the jungle. For one, you expect to be able to swim but you find that you are in fact at the mercy of a turbulent whirlpool. You jump off in one spot, and two minutes later, you find yourself drifting out to the circumference of the pool pushed by the swirling water no matter how hard you kick.
The four adventurers laughed as they discovered this, flailing their arms and legs madly as the current carried them in circles. The only way to manage it was to curl their toes onto a foothold in a boulder on the bottom of the pool. Then they stayed in one spot and laughed at one another as they attempted to swim back to the center.
Another realization they came to was that contrary to what glossy magazine perfume ads showed, it is impossible to stick your head underneath the rushing falls like a shower. The energy is just too great. Jill tried it while they were all playing in the pool. It ended disastrously. She managed to summon all the strength in her arms to climb onto one of the slippery rocks that went behind the water, and inched her way along until she was directly behind the fall. Attempting to dunk her head beneath it, she lost her balance and went tumbling into the pool upside down. She arose laughing, but was still carried in circles a few times before she gained her balance again.
After fifteen minutes of struggling in vain against the current, the four resigned themselves to defeat and climbed out of the water. They wrapped themselves in towels and sat on the rocks, happy to watch the waterfall instead of interacting with it. Exhausted, they were all quiet for a few moments.
“Imagine if this is where you grew up,” Ty commented suddenly. “If all this jungle was just a normal everyday experience for you.”
“Or, if you just decided to live here,” said Jill. “What if we all just decided to forget about school and spend our days here for the rest of the year. We’d work on the farm all morning, come down here every afternoon, and live out our days happily without ever having to think about what we’re majoring in or where we’re going with our lives. No career, no house, no kids, no stress. We’d just chill out in the jungle of Costa Rica all day long!”
“Yeah,” agreed Kyla, “and after awhile we’d be so good at farming that we could be self-sustainable. We’d know every natural alternative to pesticides, and we could even recruit some more of our friends from school and have a fully functioning commune!”
They all nodded, but each acknowledged privately that it was only a dream.
“We should just do it. Let’s just live simply,” Brian perked up suddenly, in a serious tone. “I mean, what is holding us back from it, really! We talk about it all the time. In short, ‘all good things are wild and free,’ right? What is keeping us from being wild and free?”
They racked their brains silently.
“I think I’ve lost my connection with nature,” Kyla fretted. “I mean, when I was seventeen, I went on a backpacking trip in Colorado for two weeks, and I felt like we were truly living close to the wilderness. But this is the first time since then that I’ve felt even remotely a part of natural surroundings. I read about it all the time but this week has been the first time in so long that I’ve even come in contact with it!”
“America is driven by consumerism, that’s why,” Ty replied. “Work, produce, consume. Work, produce, consume – it’s the machinery that is responsible for the human dilemma. It’s eating the earth, and driving the human race to hell.” He heaved a great sigh.
It was the same conversation they’d repeated hundreds of times before. The system that kept them down and inhibited their birthright to freedom. They held contempt for the notion that they had to go to college and study history and philosophy without first making any history of their own, or choosing their own philosophy on life. This spring break on the farm had stirred up so many such conversations that no matter how happy they were to be enjoying this temporary experience of pastoral life in the rainforest, they were equally depressed about the fact that they had to return home.
“But you do at least feel connected by being here, right?” Jill asserted, looking at Kyla.
“Yes, it’s been amazing. Life-sustaining, even. My energy hasn’t been so high in weeks. It’s as though everything in this place connects to everything else. Did you guys notice the leaf-cutter ants?”
“Yeah!” Patrick exclaimed. “They march so far, all in a straight line, each carrying the exact same sized piece of leaf.”
“And did you know that the trees act as their own compost machines?” asked Ty, brightening. “The decomposition happens so fast that within days after the dead leaves fall from the trees, they are already returning to the soil as nutrients for the tree to grow. We learned about it in my biology class last semester.”
Suddenly, all four of them became aware of the fact that there was a path directly above them. There was a crashing noise through the leaves. A group of young children came into view on the top of the bank that the waterfall cascaded from. They moved as a great collective mass, energetically pointing and chattering, their voices echoing loudly.
They couldn’t have been older than twelve, and most seemed younger than that. One of the girls could even have passed for seven. There were about ten of them. They moved about so quickly it was hard to tell. They were talking and laughing excitedly, peering over the top of the waterfall and into the pool.
One older boy in front of the group gestured toward the towel-clad travelers but the others barely paid any attention. They clearly had something else on their agenda. They all surrounded one short, skinny boy with devious looks in their eyes, as though prodding him to do something. He wore only a pair of red swimming shorts which showed his lean, muscular little body. He held his shoulders back squarely as though about to perform a great feat. The larger boys spoke excitedly to him, pointed down to the pool, and pointed at the waterfall. His black eyes surveyed the scene coolly, never flinching, and he gave a brief nod. The girls shrieked and held onto one another and a few of the other boys whooped in surprise.
The Americans couldn’t help but crane their necks upward and stare, fixated. Kyla gasped and instinctively gripped her stone perch. “He’s not, is he? Jesus, he’s going to! Look at him.”
Just as she said it, the eleven-year-old with the big black eyes crouched and settled carefully at the top of the falls, stretched his arms between the rocks that jutted out on either side of him and propelled himself vertically down the cascade.
A cheer of nervous delight arose from his companions. His downward drop was so graceful that he seemed like a twig that had snapped off a branch and fallen over the edge of the water. His skinny little body plunked into the churning pool feet first without even making a splash. It all lasted about two and a half seconds while Julie’s heart leapt into her throat and the children shrieked. Moments later, he was up above the surface again, keeping his chin above the water just enough for all to see his luminous grin.
Propelled by furious kicking, he effortlessly steered through the whirlpool to the bank on the side and caught his breath where the current couldn’t get to him. Then, to the astonishment of the American kids, he scaled up the mossy rocks with incredible ease, stepping in footholds without hesitation and swinging his agile limbs up with ease and confidence until he reached the top of the slippery wall and grasped the hands of two larger boys who were waiting to pull him onto the path. He was greeted with pats on the back and Spanish chatter of admiration and praise. His grin was so wide that it seemed to be responsible for sun suddenly peeking through the haze and a beam of light illuminating the falls.
The children left as quickly as they’d come. Their voices rose and fell like a song intermingling with the roar of the waterfall.
Left alone, everyone shook their heads in awe and laughed a little. “If only the jungle was our playground,” murmured Jill.
“We should go back,” Patrick suggested. Everyone agreed. They put their clothes back on and made their way back up the path, feeling exhausted and full of wonder.