There were eight days in Costa Rica total: four days hiking waterfalls and rainforests, and zip-lining; skimming like bats over Costa Rican treetops and valleys.
Those same four evenings spent wandering the small, dusty downtown, strolling the multi-colored floral town square, dipping into restaurants and shops, piling Pilsner bottles at each meal. Over time, life back home was reduced to a small, square thing that we let go of, a postcard life the breeze tossing it over the Arenal in the rearview.
Nights at the hotel cabin were spent low-swinging in our cabin hammock reading, showering and re-showering, the TV a flickering, low murmur bedmate, red wine-lips and wine glasses. Each day’s sun and moon announced with crowings and cicadas. The sun just another stray dog following us around with the same jaunting pant. By the third day the Costa Rican sun had already changed us, our skins drank it deep, browning and reddening us enough to blend in with the background mountains and trees. Dark, brown, beautiful, we felt like the original race, the first men to walk amongst paradise.
The fifth morning we traveled north to Tamarindo, a la playa town in Guanacaste. We traveled via a shuttle bus we shared with three other couples: a Spanish-speaking couple, a pair of North American women (Vancouver and Indianapolis) and a honeymooning couple also from Philadelphia.
Tamarindo moved at a dream’s pace. Most days we rested 4-6hrs on la playa, reading, talking, watching, resting our bodies on the Kool-Aid blue, skin-thin cheap beach towels from our hotel, practically embossed in the hot sand. Not a swimmer, I would still be pulled into Tamarindo Bay by the sun’s rays, wading in chest-high to ease the heat and burn. I’d slowly corkscrew in the bay, my gaze going from shore, to the limitless horizon marked by sleeping sailboats, to the farther mountain and hills, to the incoming waders and swimmers and back again.
But mostly I would go for walks along the shore, pacing and thinking, watching and observing. The first day I gingerly walked out to an outcrop of rocks that started at the edge of the shore and stretched out into the northern Pacific, the cropping so jagged that I had to go back and get my sneakers to make my way across. Before reaching the edge of the rocks, I would pause and look down at the mini lagoons formed by the tide, observing the temporary colonies of sea life that would gather in these makeshift pools. Schools of small fish, churches of fast-moving lizards, courts of small birds gathered in spots.
Fewer and fewer people bothered to make it past the midway point, so when I made it to the end, there was only one other man, an American around my age, sitting out there too, his stomach folded over once or twice. After nodding to each other I took a spot a few yards from him and watched the nodding sailboats along the water. So much released from my body; at one point I looked over at my neighboring hermit and saw him wiping tears away from his eyes, too.
The walks and the wallowing on the beach meant inevitably, parts of my body was patched with sand everyday.
A painter’s splash on my knee. An off-key note of it on my cheeks. An incomplete beaded gauntlet on my forearm. A drunken tattoo crust of it across my chest. All of it clung to me with the desperation of vacation.
On Wednesday morning, our third day there, we made our now-routine trek to la playa. At the entrance of the beach from the town’s main road Calle Williams, I had slowed down, my body already filling with time, realizing we were down to our last two days in Costa Rica. I wanted to take in as much as possible that morning; the hundreds of iPhone photos I’d been taking still not enough memory for my brain. I snapped endlessly with my eyes as we walked onto the shore. Even removing my sneakers to walk across the sand, I never took my eyes off the horizon, or the increasingly stronger, angrier waves–today’s looking to be the strongest yet as the tide had been growing steadier and steadier inland, dampening our backpacks and shoes.
As we got slightly separated on the beach, a trio of Costa Ricans passed me; two 20-something men and their female friend. They all had the local look: their bodies all similarly weathered as smooth and flat as beach stones; their skin sun-blessed, smooth and golden; their hair incongruously long, golden and coarse-looking. One of the men had brown-gold hair so long, bright and tangled it was as if the years spent on the beach had embedded itself into his hair, gradually spinning it gold like a fable.
I nodded as we all passed each other.
Black nigger—I heard as I walked by.
I immediately stopped and returned a cold, hardened stare through my sunglasses, my body already a tight coil of anger and fear. The golden-hued man returned my gaze and turned his toned, hairless body towards me, lifting his arms at me gladiator-style.
What, he said to me in plain English, what you want then?
His friend clapped him firmly on his back as we stared each other down for 10 seconds. I was already calculating my odds in a fight: flat-footed on hot, uneven sand, outnumbered at least 2-to-1, and on the low rock-wall behind me, another 5-6 Tamarindo men sat on the wall, waiting to giving surfing instructions, beach massages or sell knock-off pottery or trinkets. Another tap on the back by his friend, and they walked off.
When I reached our lounging spot for the day I used my iPad’s reflection to watch for him, convinced he’d try to attack me; not long after he’d circled back to join another group of Tamarindo men along the rock-wall about 50 feet behind me. I hoped to catch him first; that my tablet’s screen could ensnare him in a sun-ray refraction, freezing him in place like Medusa. After an hour passed with no incident or gesture–he was focused mainly on texting on his phone or occasionally offering lessons to arriving beach-goers–I decided to walk to the opposite end of the beach alone.