Wondering In Costa Rica: How Close Am I To Barbara Struncova?

Now that I’m back in Tamarindo Costa Rica, every day I bump into someone I haven’t seen for years. Part of me still half-expects to bump into Bill Ulmer and Barbara Struncova—they were here when I left. I should find her walking along with the dog, or spot Bill on his long board in the sunset lineup, or walk up behind them in the grocery line at Automercado. Of course it’s not going to happen.

I think about Barbara all the time—and Bill, too. How did everything go so horribly wrong for both of them? Good God. In the back of my mind, I am actively wondering, no matter what else I am doing, where she is. As I sit here at my kitchen table with my computer, how close am I to Barbara right now?

People ask me, “Where do you think he put her?” I say, “I don’t know.” I have some ideas, but they are all shots in the dark. I’m up for a drive to a few places I have in mind, though, if anyone who has a car and a few hours wants to go. Yes, that is an  invitation.  I’m not expecting miracles, but I never rule them out.

“Where would I go if I had a body to get rid of?” I ask myself. But I’m not the right person to ask. I put myself in a borrowed car with expired plates and a body in an enormous board bag. I give myself about 20 hours. Would I go north? South? East?? Would I have to get a shovel? Or something to weight the bag like cement blocks or a lot of rocks or something? Would I be heading toward an estuary? A forest? A bridge? A dump? I don’t know. Would I put the board and the body in the same place? I should have studied criminal psychology.

She can’t be far. Ten minutes? Thirty? Could he have driven for a whole hour?

Costa Rica’s Guanacaste province is a maze of back roads through fields, forests and small towns. Brackish ocean inlets called estuaries punctuate the coast line like long, squirrely commas, surrounded by dense, marshy lowlands. Estuaries, on one hand, are populated with crocodiles—which could be an attractive idea for a terrified expat with a body in the back of an illegal vehicle. But estuaries lead directly to the ocean where unmentionable things could wash up on the beach in the morning or 10 years later. So, I don’t know. But I think about it. If you needed to dig a hole big enough for the board bag and the body—that would be one enormous hole! But it could be done if you were ridiculously strong and had all night. And were desperate.  In early December, the ground is not completely dried out yet. It’s been suggested to me that maybe Bill burned the bag. I think that a burning board bag in the night, no matter where it is, would run the risk of drawing way too much unwanted attention, so I personally don’t vote for that. Which means nothing.

If a perfectly normal human being can disappear in to thin air the way Barbara did, then what is impossible?

I’d like to look for her, but there is no place to start. I ask her to tell me in a dream where she is, but my only dreams are happy dreams about meeting again, even though Barbara and I are both aware, in the dream, that she is not alive. I think that she isn’t asking me to find her bones; she is asking me to remember her. She is asking me to help you to remember her. She is asking all of us that Bill not hurt anyone else.

Bill Ulmer is, today, being held in the custody of the Mecklenburg County Sheriff’s Office in North Carolina. He was arrested on May 28, 2015 and is presently awaiting sentencing for passport fraud. At this rate, he may have served a significant portion of his sentence by the time he receives it. And any woman he approaches in the future, if she has enough sense to Google her suitors, will discover Barbara’s disappearance. Which may, when it comes to keeping potential victims out of harm’s way, be just as meaningful as any macabre discovery you or I could make on a solitary hillside or in the sand.

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Barbara's face

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Angels and Warm Air

Everything is right.

Everything is right. I look out the window at the trees and I know their names. I missed that in the desert. You have no idea how sad you can be without trees until you don’t have any. The ocean is exactly the same. It was here all along just as I suspected. It doesn’t need me to live the way I need it. The air has a faint smell of wood smoke. Maybe from brush fires in the mountains? I don’t know. We saw some as we flew into Liberia at sunset a few days ago. Locusts shrill in the trees, especially at dusk and at dawn. Flocks of silly, exuberant parakeets carry on like wound-up school kids. In the heat of the day, giant iguanas called garrobos scurry across the yard and get into loud scratchy-sounding fights our roof.

It’s hot. This is the hottest time of year, when even people who were born here complain about the temperature. Daytime highs are about 100. The ocean is warm like a saltwater bath, and crystal clear. We’ve been out surfing twice so far, with very little success if you count waves caught, but if you count how happy we are just to be in the warm salty water, we should win trophies. The apartment we’re staying in has screened windows with no glass. “Inside” and “outside” need very few barriers. At night I can finally sleep without the weight of quilts and blankets pushing on me, annoying my feet. I’m all wrapped up in angels and warm air.

Getting Settled

Travel went well, even with our boatload of baggage. We managed to make all of our connections on time and everything arrived with us. Thank you United Airlines for at least making good on the big baggage fees you charged us. A friend picked us up at the airport, took us to his house, fed us, and gave us a place to sleep. The next day we moved our things in to this simple little apartment, and we rented a car for a few days.

We went to Immigration because our residencies are expired. We have an appointment to go back in a month with certain fees paid and papers prepared—I hope that’s the end of the process and not just a little step in a long one. I guess we’ll find out. We can’t renew our drivers’ licenses or buy health insurance until our residencies are renewed. I was afraid that we weren’t going to be able to open a bank account either, but we did, at the Banco de Costa Rica. No problem. Unless you count the hour and a half that we waited in line for someone to help us. That wasn’t my favorite experience, although neither was it a surprise. We went to the phone company and I learned that my lovely Samsung cell phone from the US of A is blocked by Verizon and I can’t use it with a Costa Rican chip until after I go to a Samsung dealer in San Jose who can unblock it for me. But new boss gave me a phone. What a great guy.

We’re still in the middle of getting settled. I’m not going to go over my to-do list here, but I do have one. At the top of it is STAY OUT OF THE SUN FOR A DAY OR TWO because I’m way too crispy.

Did I mention that I can now, finally, wear one shirt at a time? I just have to say that in honor of my co-workers in Moses Lake where I amused an entire clinic by wearing multiple layers, sweaters, and gloves all year long.

Coming Home

As you’re leaving the United States, people can make you question your sanity. Everybody acts a little jealous, but they aren’t, really—because Costa Rica is a 3rd world country and that doesn’t sound safe or comfortable. Are you kidding me? People sell their souls to be safe and comfortable. But any self-doubts that I may have had evaporated during my first trip to the supermarket. I practically bumped into an old friend as I turned up the shampoo aisle. She gave me a huge bear hug and the first, “Welcome home! We missed you!”

“I’m so happy to be back,” I said.

“How long were you gone?” my friend asked.

“Five years.”

“FIVE YEARS?! Wow.” Then she shook her head sadly, thinking that over, and said, “You must be happy. It’s hard being in the States…”

It is. It is hard being in the States. It is hard to be sad for a long time. It is hard to wake up in the cold from dreams of green leaves and warm water. But it’s good to be able to do hard things. I am sure that I will have to do plenty more.

Here’s the thing: I found my tribe. And now I know that. A crazy mish-mash of expats and Costa Ricans who live together by choice. Speaking each other’s languages, making things work, sometimes making each other mad, having each other’s back, being free to leave and choosing to stay.

New Job

And now it’s Monday morning and time to start our new jobs. I’ll be in the office of a property managing company, and Pio will be doing maintenance. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Sunset April 3, 2016

Sunset April 3, 2016