Captain Jose is the beach bum’s version of a Costa Rican Buddha. Dark brown skin hangs on a physique built from sinew and muscle super-glued to bone. He walked across the beach with the ease of someone who has a greater understanding of the world beyond physical senses, as if he knows something the rest of us do not. His soft spoken Spanish breathed out his mouth in the early morning humidity, as though speaking were an unnecessary method of communication and then it was only so we, the tourists, would be able to relate. Whether we spoke Spanish or not was somewhat arbitrary as it was all that would pour from his lips.
At 9 AM Sara and I are sitting on the beach with a cup of coffee, watching the sun creep above the horizon. Every time a new person would walk up someone would ask, speaking slowly in English as though the speed of words had a direct correlation to one’s ability to understand a foreign language, “You here for the snorkeling tour? Isla Tortuga?” Being a typical American tourist whose phrasebook Spanish repertoire did not include the word for snorkeling, I was appreciative of the rest of the world picking up the slack for my inadequate language skills. Sara and I sat there until we knew this was the right place and, finishing our coffee, we blended in to the rest of the tourists mulling around the beach near the boat. Tourists in a tourist town did not attract undue attention. We are the norm, like Pavlov’s dogs salivating at the sound of a bell, doing what tourists do best. Standing. Sitting. Waiting. It’s all part of the experience.
A man who did not give his name separated us into two boats and gave a briefing of the day ahead. The briefing was short: Jose was our Captain. He will make lunch. We will snorkel. We will be back about 4 PM. Have a nice day. Jose strolled up, throwing a few things in the boat and looked quickly over the people that would soon be his for the day.
Sara and I met a few days ago and traveled together from Santa Elena to Montezuma near the southern tip of the Peninsula de Nicoya on the west coast of Costa Rica. We walked through Montezuma, deciding what to do now we had arrived. We decided on Isla Tortuga. I do not remember if it was the guidebook, someone else’s suggestion, or the green and deep translucent blue posters advertising the tours. I think it was the latter. In my defense for being taken in by a poster, I think of it this way: It was one of the main attractions and as it was an island off the coast, only a boat would get us there. To hire a boat and take it himself or herself into the ocean, especially one who grew up in Phoenix, AZ, and was now living in the high desert of Nevada, would simply be foolish. Living in the Southwest US does not groom a person to be seaworthy.
We were true tourists, paying for a service, but no matter. A few beers later, my buyer’s remorse had subsided while watching a local kid, about twelve years old, break dancing to “Can’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” by Michael Jackson when in stepped a blond, very Nordic looking college-age man. The dance off lasted for a few songs with heads spins, backspins, somersaults and robotic moves. In true traveler fashion and street style, it ended with smiles and handshakes, each obviously admiring the others skills on the dance floor. Buyer’s remorse cannot compete with that scene.
“Los chicos, las chicas,” Jose said, pointing toward the boat a few feet away from us. He rattles off directions in his quiet voice – we understand more from his pointing and looking toward the ocean than from anything he actually said. He is unconcerned as to our capability to understand and I got the sense stating the directions, even in Spanish, was a way to waive liability rather than to serve as instructional value. Jose, looking calm and in command, mixed with the obvious idea that a boat functions best in the ocean, led us all to the conclusion to push. Shoving inflatable rollers under the boat, we push almost uncontrollably and when it is about to fly off one roller, we pull the boat to a standstill while the person nearest the front shoves another roller underneath. We near the ocean and when the waves came in just right, Jose jumps over the side and into the boat yelling, “Rapido! Rapido!” We push as hard as we can, thrusting the boat out to the ocean, some of us landing face first in the water when the hull sped away faster than expected. Jose lowers the motor into the water, cranks it up, and was out of the cove in no time.
The man who’s name we did not know lines us up on the beach, explaining that when Jose came back, we would have to move quickly into the boat to avoid the onslaught of waves driving the boat into shore. When Jose pulls into the cove, and motions for us to get on the boat, we were like sea lions bellying up on rocks.
Jose steers the boat through the water and waves paralleling the coastline along the peninsula heading toward Isla Tortuga. We are stacked across flat wooden benches, each placed in position by Jose to distribute the weight evenly and avoid overturning into the ocean. Along the coast we pass waterfalls shooting out of the jungle and over cliffs creating impressions in the sand before it continued across and through the beach and into the ocean. The sun beats down on us but no one cares. It feels good. Besides, we are in a boat off the Costa Rican coast.
Usually, I avoid guided tours of any sort as they often lack the authenticity and excitement of discovering places on your own and tend to achieve a sterile quality as though nothing out of the scheduled events can happen. One is rarely going to achieve the perfect moment while the tour guide spits out facts and tall tales they repeat almost daily to whomever is paying. Jose was not a tour guide but more of an overseer. His attitude subtly expressed the fact he would do no such thing as pretend to be a guide of any sort. It was this reserved attitude that gave him a mystery and solitude usually attributed to those who have achieved enlightenment, or soon will. It was also what made him memorable.
Jose looks into the distance, fixed on some point we could only presume was Isla Tortuga. He swerves across the waves and back as though avoiding a pothole on the freeway never leaving the path to our destination. I get the idea he really does not know many English words but he points to the right side of the boat toward the ocean and says, “Dolphins.” I can see him smile a little as we turn our heads. Even if this is a tourist moment fit for a commercial, I think few people would think the sight of dolphins arching through the air and into the water, sun reflecting off their shiny bodies, is not a beautiful sight.
Near Isla Tortuga we stop near some outcroppings of rock, small 360 degree cliffs shooting out of the water. More directions in Spanish from Jose and we pull on fins and masks and it is every person for themselves. The water is murky. I see fish I know from previous experience are bright rainbow colors, but they look dull. Still, it is exciting trying to chase them through the cloudy water using pretend ESP, as though I can sense and anticipate their movements. I suck in small amounts of saltwater as I blow through the snorkel to clear it. Pulling the snorkel out of my mouth I spit salt water back into the ocean, throw my lips around it and face down in the water. Based on the number of people already back in the boat, no one else is seeing much either, but I stay out a bit longer, letting the warm salt water surround me, thinking that this is not the desert I am used to. After we are all in the boat again, Jose takes us a few minutes away to the island.
I lounge on the beach trying not to get too much sun, my pale skin unable to process more than a couple minutes of UV light. Though I have never really been sun burned when wearing sun block, I am still not sure how sun block works so I do not want to take the chance. I think this logic is probably why I have not been burned. Thoughts float away as the sun and water surround my flesh. It is like bath water at body temperature, maybe a little warmer. The worlds we all came from seems distant.
Jose drank cheap beer out of the can as he prepared lunch, throwing fish and vegetables wrapped in foil onto the grill. Bread was cut up with pineapple and mango for dessert and placed around the table within reach of everyone. Sitting around the table, strangers forced into close contact, we are unable to retreat – at least while food was on the table.
Ever since I traveled throughout France I have been unable to stomach travel talk, that is, people who seem unable to converse beyond the last or next pinpoint on a map that permeates virtually any traveling community. People one up each other with geographical LCT or extremes of exoticness, as though a person’s inadequate finances or time off instantly categorize them as inferior in the traveling world. This is simply petty and signifies a lack of depth to which no person should be subjected. The moment I hear any words resembling banal conversation referencing the last place one has been or the next place one is going, my mind reacts, instantly automating my head nods and “yeahs” that affirm conversation while my daydreams roll on, saving me from the conversational numbness that is inevitable. Exchanging quips of recent villages and cities or specific rocks on which one meditated is an easy and accessible icebreaker but if something deeper does not surface I would rather run away and bury my head in the sand then attempt participation in such a futile resemblance of conversation.
The friends I have met on the road are those who transcend this simple conversation pattern. The banter around the table ranged from humorous to thoughtful. One of my favorite parts to traveling is learning about why some people have come to a certain place, or have decided to not be where they were a short time ago. Answers range from the practical, such as this was a cheap place to be exotic for our honeymoon, to the metaphysically abstract in which the person is obviously dealing with a heavy situation but can only elude to it with strangers to not feel emotionally vulnerable and awkward. By far the most interesting was Sara. But, to be fair to everyone else who was sitting around the table, the main reason I found Sara interesting is that I had been able to talk with her for more than just a few hours.
When I met Sara we were both in Santa Elena, near Monteverde, staying at the same inn, our rooms across from one another. I noticed her the way you notice someone you see at the coffee shop or supermarket every day, passing her repeatedly, her blurred image ingrained in a brief memory like abstract art. My theory is that in any situation at home or abroad, if you run into someone more than twice there is a basic familiarity that lends itself to moving beyond small talk to conversations that are interesting and personal.
I found myself sitting next to her on the second floor balcony. Rain fell in sheets pounding down harder every few minutes as though the gods were throwing it down in buckets. It was dark even though it was only four in the afternoon, the sun was unable to pierce the thick clouds. Sara was thumbing through her guidebook looking for the next place. It seemed she was as prepared as I, opting to see what is appealing as I go, instead of the theory of increased productivity through planning. Monteverde was the first stop for both of us.
Independent travel is less concerned with traveling by oneself than about keeping open the possibilities one encounters while traveling. Unencumbered by the inherent restraints of an actual partner, the potential to have a variety of meaningful relationships discovered through either fate or destiny, depending on how you see it, remains wide open. As a single traveler other single travelers find it an easy approach. Sitting on the balcony by ourselves we quickly became friends.
Sara told me about her reason for coming to Costa Rica. An ex-boyfriend. A summer in Costa Rica the previous year, something like a fiction story: He was an artist living in a small town. She would ride her bike down the streets and swim in the ocean. It was the romance of a soap opera without the drama. It was also history. Near breaking up, she bought them tickets and said to make the choice – go with her or stay. Either way she would know where she stood.
She was alone with me on the balcony of an inn in Santa Elena.
Stories of love are easy to relate to. You have either been there or want to be. I didn’t know what to say exactly. She said it almost matter-of-fact. Neutral. These are the times I most worry about people because they neither hate or love, they are almost emotionally non-existent, which is usually what happens before realizing that a sense of loss strikes hard and usually only dissipates with time. I could tell she was still struggling with the break-up. You do not email an ex for an hour without malicious hate or extreme hope, like the time apart will act as a magnet making the relationship stronger the closer you get to coming home.
Still, these are the stories I like to hear. It is somewhat voyeuristic, I admit. Generally, I think my life lacks the drama I see around me, so I strive to understand what other people are experiencing. It is also what makes them more than a forgettable acquaintance. I will remember her for the story she told a stranger. In some ways it is safe. We hang out for a few days and then…nothing. It is easy to open up when there is no lasting exposure.
After sitting in the sun, swimming and snorkeling all day, we head back to Montezuma and the next morning a water taxi to Jaco to catch buses our separate ways. We woke up early, heaving our bags onto the beach near the boat. Jose stepped out of a nearby house took our tickets and we moved through the same process as the day before pushing the boat out, bellying into it and sped across the open ocean to the mainland.
As we neared the shore Captain Jose slowed the boat lifting the motor out of the water, leaving us almost within reach of the beach, but still at the mercy of the tide and currents. The Texans had yet to pay and Jose, enlightened as he seemed to be, was not going to forgo the fare or pull up to the shore to have them keep walking, backs to the ocean and him. He could not afford to lose the boat to chase after a few short changers. They negotiated their fare, talking back and forth in Spanish, money changed hands. Jose slipped the money into his pocket, lowered the engine into the water and gently propelled us to shore. We helped each other pull the bags and suitcases out and on to dry land and gave Jose’s boat a push into deeper water.
Jose isn’t out to cheat someone but, rather, like travelers and tourists, wants to take the necessary precautions to make it a pleasant, worthwhile journey and errs on the side of caution. I do not think he would have held out for too long, sitting in the rain in a small boat in the ocean. A stand off of such a sort would be ill advised for all parties. For the traveler, we safeguard our passports and money, throw our legs through bag straps at all stops, and hold them close when carrying them into crowded subway stations and packed festivals. For Jose, it is getting paid, and if we have to float in the ocean for a few extra minutes, it is a small sacrifice. The rain was pleasant anyway.
Sara and I parted a few miles down the road, our short adventure together complete. I was moving on to Parque Manuel San Antonio to check out the monkeys and beaches, she was off to see some friends in Dominical further south on the West Coast. As I wandered through the trails and watched the monkeys flying through the trees, the sloths almost immobile in their slow motion, I thought about Captain Jose smiling as he steered his boat across the ocean, a place he seemed perfectly at ease with, more than content, and wondering if Sara will find the resolution she seeks. Two people separated by different lives intertwined briefly. They seemed the same on the beach, everyone did to the extent that whatever people left behind stayed there, away from the beach on Isla Tortuga.
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