Boa

Flash non-fiction from times when the jungle was wilder.

I pull the suitcase down off the shelf above the corner closet, and there she is looking at me—a boa. We are equally surprised, and both jump back. How long has she been with me in my bedroom on top of the closet? How on earth did she get in?

How on earth will I get her out?

Maybe I should leave her there, I think. Maybe I have slept in my bed with her watching over me on many nights.

Maybe so, I think, but no more. We are afraid of each other now, and in this room together neither of us will sleep.

I stand on a chair with a broom and push her onto the floor. She flops helplessly to the tile, and in a desperate speedy wiggle, dives toward the safe darkness under my bed. I swipe at her with the broom – mighty whacks that push her toward the open door. I don’t want to hit her, but I am afraid of her. She strikes at the broom. She is afraid of me.

When I finally push her through the door into the black night, she slithers into the leafy jungle. My heart is pounding fast, as if I have been fighting for my life. Does she have a sister in my bedroom? Will she try to find her way back in?

Now, if she bites me I will deserve it. I hit her hard, and she did nothing to me but enter unannounced.

I lay on my bed in the dark and I am not sleepy. I imagine eyes looking down at me from the shelf on top of the closet. I feel the flicker of a thin tongue that reads my dreams.

I have been wrong. On how many nights have I lamented sleeping alone, while in truth accompanied by a lithe and silent guardian?

Barbara Struncova’s 37th Birthday

Happy birthday, Barbara. From all of us who refuse to forget you.

barbara-at-kellys

You are supposed to be celebrating 37 years, today.

Bill is in jail today, like he was last year on your birthday. The USA did all it could to fight for you in court. They pulled the story of what happened to you from the archives of the OIJ, translated it to English, and presented it in a court of law, so that now what was once secret is public information. The judge, of course, was unable to sentence Bill for a crime that was not one of the original charges, but believe me girl–everyone got the point.

I wish we had more to give you for your birthday, but this is what we hold in our hands.

I know you are very close, or you were. I would like to question the trees, the crocodiles, the owls. When I learn to speak their languages, I will.

Sleep sweetly, friend.

About Being Brave. Or Not.

I’ve always been perplexed by people who tell me I’m brave—or maybe I should say, I am intrigued by the things that people interpret as acts of bravery.

How many times have I heard this: “You live in Costa Rica?  Oh you’re so brave!”  Or in reference to me moving here by myself (even though I was coming back to friends) when I was 24, “That’s so brave!”

The thing is, it’s not brave.  Not for me, anyway.  How can you be brave if you aren’t scared?  If I’m not afraid of something, for me to do it requires no bravery at all.

My boss took the batch of us on a canopy tour, recently, where you harness up, hang by metal clamps from steel cables, and zoom through the jungle canopy from tree to tree.  It’s a lot of fun.  I’ve never been afraid of heights, so it requires no bravery for me to launch from the platform and fly through the air.  Some of the team members, however, were petrified.  For them to do the exact same thing as I did was a tremendous act of bravery.  I watched them struggle with their fear and overcome it (or not).

To be brave is not the same as to be fearless.  If I’m not afraid of the ocean and I paddle out into it on a surfboard, that’s not bravery.  If I am afraid of the ocean and I paddle out into it anyway, THAT is brave.

For me, getting on an airplane is brave.  Getting on the motorcycle is brave.  (I do it all the time, clamped for dear life to the back of my husband who is cool as a cumber.)  Living in Costa Rica?  Not brave.  Getting on a boat?  Not brave.  Canopy tour?  Not brave.  Spelunking?  That’s another story.  I will hang by my tiptoes from a tightrope before I crawl into a small space that I can’t see my way out of.  That would require me to be brave, and I’m not interested.  Call me a chicken.

Up until the end of July, surfing, for me, was generally not an act of bravery unless there were a lot of rocks in the water.  I have this inexplicable panic in the presence of rocks.  Duh.  Rocks.  But yes—seeing dark shapes under me, or feeling them when I can’t see them, has always just about sent me over the edge.  No idea why.  And then the crocodile thing happened.

It didn’t happen to me in the most literal way, but there are ways in which it did.  And I’ve been back surfing, since.  Gingerly, if there is such a thing.  It’s getting a little better.  But make no mistake—surfing, for me, has become an act of bravery in a way that it wasn’t before.  I think I speak for a lot of people in my town when I say that.  Whereas before, perhaps, we are fearless, we have now become brave.

Being fearless, which can be good or bad, is a characteristic, and who chooses their characteristics?  Being brave is a choice.

Where am I going with this?  A ninguna parte.  I’m just saying.  Fearlessness and bravery might look the same on the outside.  On the inside, they’re not.

Crocodiles: The Ugly Side

I don’t know what, unless I was simply supposed to be there, possessed me to get up at the crack of dawn and go down to surf the outgoing tide. I never do that. I don’t like surfing the outgoing tide in Tamarindo now, with the estuary dumping out its murky water practically at the Pico Grande reef. You can see from the beach why it would be better to wait a few days until the early tide is coming in, which is what I usually do.  I live here.  I can afford to be picky.  But on Friday morning, I went anyway. In fact, it was late on Thursday afternoon when, for some reason, I decided to get up early and surf the outgoing tide in the morning, which I know perfectly well I don’t like. And as I might have expected–I didn’t like it. There were plenty of waves, but all swirly and weird, breaking funny like I’m not used to, and the murky water and smelled of the brackish estuary.  The current was pushing me around, and I got a little freaked out about crocodiles.  I know that the estuary is where they live, and I know that some of them are huge and tame.  I tell myself all the time that crocodiles don’t eat people, but  I declare I could feel their beady eyes on me.  So I rode the second wave I caught all the way in to the beach and decided to go home for breakfast.

The last thing in the world I expected was to end up assisting the victim of a crocodile attack.

As I walked down the beach toward the path to the street, I saw something that didn’t make sense. My friend Edgar pulling somebody out of the estuary on the board. A child? No, not a child. A very big person.  Something wasn’t right about the person’s face.  Was that blood on it? And he wasn’t acting right. Edgar wasn’t acting right, either. I put my board down and asked, “Do you need help?” because something was wrong, but I couldn’t tell what.  That’s when Edgar told me that a crocodile had just attacked the man as they attempted to across the estuary.  They fought it until it let him go.

Edgar ran for help and I went to the man. He was lying on a small surfboard, floating in a about a foot of swirling water.  The was conscious and there were holes in his face. Big holes. He looked up at me and I knew there was no way on God’s green earth I could get a man this big out of the water by myself.  I asked him if he could walk. He told me his right leg was pretty f*’d up. I asked him if he could crawl. He said he thought so. So I tried to help this large, terribly injured man crawl from the sea onto the land. His hands and arms were full of bites from crocodile teeth, already starting to swell. Then I saw his leg.

It wasn’t a leg anymore. There was a foot, but it was no longer his foot. It was a foot with an ankle, floating, still attached to various types of flesh and a bare, jagged bone.  I told myself not to look at it.

As soon as he was completely out of the water, I told him to lie down. The tide was going out, like I said, and I knew the water would soon be far away. He rolled onto his back. And there I was on the beach with a mutilated man that I do not know, somewhere between life and death, sometime before 7 AM on a beautiful morning.

I held his head in my hands and he breathed.  I pulled Edgar’s board toward me and propped the man’s head on it. Then I took off the long-sleeved rashguard (which I only wear when I am trying to avoid sunburn, but for some reason put on that day at 5:30 in the morning), and tied it as tightly as I could above his right knee. I knew that the mess below it was not going to be of use to him anymore, but I also knew that he would bleed to death right there in the sand if someone didn’t stop him. Then I did the only other thing you can do at a time like that: I put my hands on either side of his head, held it lightly so he would feel there was someone with him, and prayed to God that he would not feel too much fear or too much pain.

I thought he might die. I know that the human body is amazingly strong, but I didn’t know how much blood he’d lost or how long it would take for an ambulance to come.  Or if they would have what he needed when they got there.  I had a flashback of the man who died on the beach in Tamarindo years ago after a drowning incident because when the emergency team arrived to resuscitate him, no one had charged the defibrillator.

Lots of guys arrived and started running around cursing, exclaiming, bring bandages and ice.  I got up and walked quietly away. There was nothing more I could offer as more capable help began to arrive. That’s when I had to sit, for a minute, with my head between my knees and tell myself not to faint.  I’m choosing not to describe in detail the mutilation that this man suffered.  Even the nastiest pictures the media posted do not do it justice.  Fortunately.

He’s alive. His name is Jon. He is in the hospital fighting for his life as I write this, and winning. Of course–he beat the croc.  He lost most of his right leg below the knee, but the rest will heal as long as infection is held at bay. Crocodiles are dirty creatures with dirty mouths and dirty teeth.

What’s Normal/What’s Not:

I’m no authority on crocodiles, but do know it is normal for large reptiles to live in estuaries, where fresh and salt water mix.  I do know that crocodiles swim in the ocean.  I do not think they generally live in the ocean, but they certainly go out for a swim once in a while.  I know that this crocodile (or these crocodiles, because they all look alike to me) lives in the Tamarindo estuary.  I know that normally crocodiles live on fish, dead things, and small birds/animals that they catch.  What is NOT normal is that this crocodile, or he and his cousins, like to hang out by the boats where people are.  I’ve heard the boat drivers throw food to them so tourists can watch them eat.  I have not seen them do that myself, so I am not saying it is a fact–although people I trust say that it is.  This crocodile will let you walk near as it suns itself on the beach.  I’ve seen people do it.  It will come up out of the water onto the land where people are standing.  In essence, it is not afraid of people, and that is NOT normal.  And it is also not normal for a crocodile to attack a large grown man.  I don’t understand why it would do that. We are not supposed to look like food to them. A dog, yes.  A child, unfortunately, yes.  A man the size of Jon?  No.  How many times have I joked that a crocodile wouldn’t want me because I’m too old and too tough to chew?  Wrong.

Taking risks:

Every surfer in the world is aware that crocodiles live in estuaries, just as we know that sharks lives in oceans and stingrays sleep in the sand. It is a risk, big or small, that we knowingly take, at least to some degree. I used to cross the estuary on my board all the time, but since I’ve been back in Tamarindo I haven’t done it even once. I took one look at that croc when I got back into town and decided that the waves on this side will do just fine for a girl like me. Color me satisfied.  Even that doesn’t make me safe, and that’s exactly my point:  suffers make choices and are aware of at least dangers that fall within the realm of normal.

That crocodile, in my opinion, is not normal.

I worry about visitors. Tourists. People from San Jose or Santa Cruz. People from places like Kansas and Manitoba. People who have no idea. Children.  I hear the authorities are putting up signs.  Is that good enough?

Jon and Edgar are big, strong men. They are both much bigger and far stronger than I am, and they were together as they fought this creature. I’ll be honest: I am full of fear. And this time it’s not fear of something I saw in a movie or dreamed in the night–it is fear of something I held in my hands.

The Ugly Side:

I know I will surf again, but not today. Today I will stand by the water and think about the ugly side of Mother Nature’s beautiful face. I will think about the necessity of a body full of warm blood, and how perfect it is to have two arms, two legs, one head.

Today, that alone is enough of a thrill.

help 2The Man The Crocodile Didn’t Eat
Photo by Leonardo Pinolero

Bill Ulmer Sentenced to Three Years in Prision

Two things happened yesterday—one rather blah, and one completely amazing. Blah is that Bill was sentenced to 36 months in prison for using Wayne’s passport. I’m not happy with that, but I’m also not surprised. It’s more or less what I was coached to expect for the charges that were filed. Could be better, could be worse—no matter who you are. Except Barbara. For her, everything could only be better.

The completely amazing thing is that the USA (who is the one bringing charges against Bill Ulmer) filed a “Motion for Departure” with the court, asking for an INCREASE in the level of Bill’s sentencing range. In this document, they laid out the entire story of why Bill stole Wayne’s passport and fled to Costa Rica in 2009 (I hadn’t written about that, so get ready for another surprise), and all of the evidence pointing to the presumable murder of Barbara Struncova. It tells the whole story pretty much as we already know it, complete with quotes from the OIJ and the investigation report from the house where Bill and Barbara lived. As the document is considered “public information,” I am sharing it with the public. I urge you to do the same.

MOTION FOR DEPARTURE FILED BY THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA

The document concludes: “The facts of this case clearly demonstrate that, using his brother’s identity and stolen passport, Ulmer quickly fled Costa Rica to avoid questioning by Costa Rican law enforcement authorities regarding the disappearance and suspected murder of his then live-in girlfriend Barbara Strunkova.”

The judge chose not to take the increase recommendation, and gave Bill a rather blah sentence for stealing and using a passport that didn’t belong to him.

PRESS RELEASE FROM THE DEPARTMENT OF JUSTICE

Is that justice? Not for Barbara. For identity fraud, probably yes.

No sentence, no matter how long or how severe, will bring Barbara back. And very few sentences will keep other women out of harm’s way forever. What I really want—me, personally—is exactly that. NO MORE VICTIMS. My number one priority is not vengeance for a life taken. That life is gone. I want him to STOP LYING. STOP CHEATING. STOP HURTING PEOPLE. If I thought he would walk out of that jail cell a reformed man who would not lie to people, cheat or cheat on people who trust him, who would never again hurt a women emotionally or physically or financially or spiritually, I think I would be satisfied. I would have gotten what I most want in exchange for the life of my friend that I will never get back.

I’m not holding my breath. But I would love him to prove me wrong.  Just this once.