there will be
to fly over
there will be
night rain to
conduct the chorus of
a thousand trees
there will be
in the world
than you or I have
dawn will be
gentle as a mother
open our eyes
there will be
to fly over
there will be
night rain to
conduct the chorus of
a thousand trees
there will be
in the world
than you or I have
dawn will be
gentle as a mother
open our eyes
I have some things to say about ashes—human ashes, the kind I live with. I thought you might be curious. I was. Pio’s ashes came to me in a rectangular stainless steel box that the Comune di Milano considers appropriate for traveling. The box is sealed shut because in Italy it is illegal to spread human ashes. I didn’t bother to find out why. I don’t actually care why. I will just say that it took a mighty amount of determination for me to get into that box. Having him (“him”) sealed in there by somebody who felt is was not alright for him to come out just about drove me nuts.
I got it. It’s a story for another day—but I got it.
And this is what I want to tell you: cremation ashes look like sand. They do not look like wood ashes, and they’re not flakey like that. They’re heavy like sand. I asked my faithful friend Google about it and s/he explained that the only thing left after a person is cremated, are bones. It makes sense. Everything else is water, and turns into steam or smoke, I suppose. The bones are then ground to tiny pieces and called “ashes.” What they really are is sand.
Does that gross you out? I hope not. There’s nothing yucky about ashes–that’s the whole point of them. Does it scare you? Well. These are the things we need to sit with. Starting now, or you can wait until you have no choice. It makes you sad? Good. You’re supposed to be sad about sad things. Sadness is unsettling when it is a stranger, but when it grows to be familiar, not so much.
Where I live, the sand is made mostly of tiny pieces of shells. Some coral. Some stones. How long does it take a shell to become sand after the animal that made it dies? I think that should be a unit for measuring time. The beach is made up of bones.
I sit on the beach and run sand through my fingers. Push my toes into it. Look at the little bones of all of the things that ever lived. Think about how everything together equals una sola cosa. I tell myself it’s ok.
How long does it take for water molecules that rise to the sky from a crematorium in Milan to become a cloud above Costa Rica? I lie in the sand when the wind is whipping and let it pelt me. Get in my ears and bury itself in my hair. Everything that is, is made of everything that was. I tell myself it’s ok.
Sometimes it is, sometimes it isn’t.
But you have to find a way to open yourself up wide enough to let it inside you. You’ll suffocate, otherwise. The more you’re afraid or the more you fight, the worse. You have to put your fingers in the ashes and the sand and you have to let all the little bones pour through your fingers. You just do. There’s nothing to be afraid of.
Put your ear to the ground, to the sand, and listen to the bones of everything.
You all so kindly and generously held onto me through the last unbelievable months. It seems right to me that I should tell you what comes next, what comes now. I don’t have a lot of eloquent words, but I can pull back the curtain and let you look out my window.
You wonder how I am.
What can I say? Alright, I think, all things considered. Glad to be back in Costa Rica. Glad to be “home.” I put the quotation marks around the word, because nowhere without Pio feels like home. But Costa Rica is my home and I am glad I am here. I’m better, here, than anywhere else.
I got of the plane from Italy about 2 ½ weeks ago. I moved into a lovely house with lots of pretty wood, an extra bedroom, a huge porch, and my cats. Those things are all good. I got my washer hooked up yesterday, so that took things up a notch. I have a hammock on my porch. My bike works and my legs are catching up to the job of pedaling.
This is the beginning of my second week of work. Work is good. It’s weird, because I hear the truck Pio drove pull up to the office 100 times a day, and it’s never him. Maybe, eventually, I’ll get used to it and stop looking up every time I hear it. His workshop is dark and quiet. Exactly what he feared most. He was so proud of that workshop. I’m doing some accounting clean-up right now, not trying to run the maintenance department anymore. I didn’t love being in charge of maintenance before, and I have no interest at all in doing it without Pio. I’d rather play matching games with numbers. I’d rather sell coconuts on the beach.
You wonder what you should say if you see me.
Don’t worry about it. “Hi, how are you?” works. What are you supposed to say? Unless you say something like “Good riddance,” or “You were never a very good wife anyway,” you are not going to say the wrong thing. And no, I am probably not going to come unglued and bawl all over you if you hug me and tell me how sorry you are. I’ve only done that twice: once with my parents, and once with the closest thing I will ever have to children. So if you’re not my mom and you’ve never called me “mom,” you’re fine.
No, I don’t dread running into you or anyone else. If I didn’t want to see people I know, I wouldn’t have come back to Tamarindo. I would have gone to another province or another country. The only people I actually don’t want to see are the ones that didn’t like Pio–and as you can imagine, it’s slim company. So, again—you’re fine.
Talking about Pio and receiving the pictures you have of him does not upset me. They make me smile and laugh. They’re like little visits.
Don’t talk about “starting over” or “getting on” with life.” Ok? Those are the wrong words. I realize they are the ONLY words our language has for this, but they are the WRONG ones. Don’t say them. I know what my job is now even if I don’t have the right way to say it. I won’t be mad at you if it pops out, I’ll just feel a little sadder and a little more lost.
And don’t say “Everything happens for a reason.” It sounds mean. I’m not telling you what to believe, I’m telling you what not to say. I am at peace with as much of that concept as humanly possible, but I was never a fan of that snooty saying before, and I’m sure not about to convert now. I’m good with, “Everything happens.” Put the period right there. Less is more.
Yes, I have them in the house with me.
No, that is not weird.
Yes, I intend to put them in the ocean as Pio always asked me to, but not yet.
No, I don’t know when.
Yes, I tried to open the box.
No, I couldn’t.
Yes, it is sealed.
No, I am probably not going to hold some kind of event where I invite other people when I take his ashes to the ocean.
No, not even you.
Oh, that’s selfish? Ok.
Yes, I will tell you about it afterward.
I sleep really well. I’m tired. Everything takes twice the effort. I don’t mean to complain—I’m trying to explain why I sleep like a log when you’d think I should be tossing and turning. Also, it’s warm, and I sleep much better when I’m warm than when I’m cold. I sleep better when I can hear what time it is by listening through my window. If you live in Guanacaste, you know what I mean: tree frogs and crickets, owls, roosters, monkeys, dawn.
Tamarindo Bay is like a lake right now, but when we get some waves, I’m ready to go surfing. And then I will be better than I am. The ocean is big enough for everything.
These are my gleanings from the meeting held at the Barceló with ADI (Association de Desarollo Integral), SINAC (Sistema Nacional de Areas de Conservacion), CATURGUA (Camera de Turismo Guanacasteca), and MINAE (Ministerio de Ambiente y Energia). The purpose of the meeting was to discuss The Crocodile/s . I mostly went to listen, because that’s always a good start, and I got to ask a few questions. What follows is what I took away from the meeting. This is not intended to be a complete summary—I’m sure ADI will provide that. It is a subjective gleaning and contains editorial commentary and a concerted effort to minimize sarcasm.
–They carefully observed the crocodiles in the estuary after the July attack. They removed the very big one that exhibited dangerous/unusual behavior, explaining that there was only one exhibiting this behavior and it is certainly the one guilty of the attack. It was taken to Puerto Humo. (I looked it up. It’s where the Tempisque River is born. ) They are still monitoring crocodiles in the Playa Grande/Tamarindo/Langosta area and analyzing their behavior. In the five kilometer marine stretch that they monitor, it is normal for there to be 12-14 crocodiles moving around at any given time.
Laura The Crocodile Expert says:
–It is not true that crocodiles were “seeded” here.
–Salt water crocs are completely natural in the estuaries and oceans of Guanacaste. She says they were depleted in the 40-60s, but that now their populations are becoming “healthy” again.
–It is not true that there is an overpopulation of crocodiles in Tamarindo. Overpopulation occurs when there are so many of a species that there is not enough food for them, and they begin to kill each other. Since crocodiles are not doing this, there is no overpopulation. Lucky for us, crocodiles are of a species that control their own population—as in, crocodiles never have overpopulation because they kill each other first and solve their own problem.
–Swimming in the ocean is normal crocodile behavior. Eating dogs is normal crocodile behavior. (I wanted to ask if eating human preschoolers would be considered normal crocodile behavior, but I was afraid of the answer.)
–Attacking/eating (presumably adult) people is not normal behavior for this species of crocodile. Nile crocodiles, she explained, eat people, but not this kind. She made a big deal about how crocodiles do not hunt people, do not want to eat people and are normally afraid of people.
–The (only) problem in Tamarindo is that crocodiles have been, for so long, fed by humans.
The SINAC guy talked too, but he didn’t say anything that stuck with me. He did take a moment to praise the fact that we have such a wonderful government system that allows us all to participate in decisions, as demonstrated by this meeting.
The meeting, by and large, revolved around how dreadful it is that we have created this dangerous situation for ourselves by feeding the crocodiles. (Which I acknowledge. Our Tamarindo crocs have twisted minds and there’s no one to blame except us.)
But ok. So we’ve corrupted the crocodile population. While we right our wrong, what’s the plan for our safety?
Signs. Signs warning people not to feed crocodiles, and not to swim in the ocean/estuary. (How about a sign asking crocodiles not to eat the people? I didn’t say that, but I thought it.) And crocodile “monitoring.”
That’s when I raised my hand. First, I said why I was there—because I happened to be a first-hand witness of the trauma caused by the attack, and I DO NOT EVER want to see anything like that again. And I don’t want you to, either. The room became very quiet. Then I asked the guy from MINAE: How are you monitoring the crocodiles? And what does a crocodile have to do in order for you to identify it as “malportado? “
They said they are monitoring the crocodiles by observing them. I was imagining chips and tracking devices, but no. That’s way too Animal Planet. “Monitoring” means that MINAE has people watching over the crocodiles. (I haven’t seen these monitors. Maybe you have?) Later in the meeting MINAE stated that they have 7 people in charge of “monitoring” 26,000 hectares. Or maybe I misunderstood that? I hope so. And a naughty crocodile, one who could get itself on the bad-boy list for possible deportation to Puerto Humo, is one that shows abnormal interest in people. Swimming near people. Looking at people. Not humbly slinking away.
MINAE wants us to report to them—that’s the most useful thing I learned at the meeting. If you see a human feeding a crocodile, make a denuncia. If you see a crocodile showing interest in humans, make a denuncia! (I’m not sure it’s called a denuncia if it’s against an animal, but you get what I mean.) MINAE says that for all of the videos on social media and for all the fussing and fuming there is about people feeding crocs, there has not ever been ONE SINGLE denuncia filed against anyone with MINAE. Which is silly. A few denuncias, a long time ago, would have enabled them to act before things turned out the way they did. Or anyway, that’s the story in retrospect. Point being: if you see any funny stuff between people and crocodiles—regardless of which species is the perpetrator—call MINAE. They’ll be right over after they finish observing the other 25,000 hectares they’re in charge of.
Other people asked questions, but I don’t really remember what they were. (I don’t advertise this a lot, but I’m actually quite selfish.) We spent A LOT of time reviewing the evils of people who feed crocs and the wonderful power of signs. Signs in red, to be specific. Red was praised. I’m not kidding. (And all sarcasm aside, red is better than the brown-and-yellow ones originally posted behind the high tide mark.)
I asked my other question to Laura The Crocodile Expert. Because I wanted someone at that table of “experts” to say it to my face. I said, “You’re the crocodile expert. You know these animals better than anyone else in this room. So tell me. Now that the big bad crocodile is gone, but knowing that there are others nearby who were certainly fed by humans, would you , if you were a surfer like I am, put your board in the water and surf in the mouth of the estuary?” Everybody laughed nervously. And Laura said, “No.” Not in the mouth of the estuary, she wouldn’t. No matter how good the waves were. That’s like chilling out on their buffet table.
People surf in the river mouth every day, and so far all of us have been safe. I didn’t say that, because she gave me her honest opinion, which is what I asked for. And she confirmed that my persisting fears are not an irrational.
Now, looking back on it, I feel a small (but futile) twinge of victory. I didn’t mean to set a trap, but if you think about it, I guess the panel of experts admitted that even though they’ve “done something” about the crocodile “problem” in Tamarindo, it still isn’t “safe.” Babies, dogs and surfers, beware: MINAE is working to protect us within the bounds of the law, but the crocodile expert wouldn’t go for a swim.
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.
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.
The Man The Crocodile Didn’t Eat
Photo by Leonardo Pinolero
There are some things that I think about/feel/know when I’m in the ocean that don’t come to me in the same way any other time. It’s not about surfing. I step into the water and stand there with it swirling around my knees, or I lie on my back and float. And things come to me.
Lo Que Es La Orilla del Mar:
It’s the end of the world and the beginning of what is after/before. Es donde la vida eterna se toca con la vida mortal. It is the place where now meets forever. Right here. Right where my feet are. This is the place. It’s the end.
It’s also the beginning. It is the amniotic fluid that carries our planet which is constantly being born.
I like to float on my back and look up at the sky. I think about how only a thin layer of skin separates the salt water I am made of from the salt water that holds me up. It’s those few millimeters that keep me from blending in with Everything. On land, I am an individual. In the ocean, I am molecules of salt water among the others. It’s not a bad feeling. I tried to write a poem about it but there wasn’t anything else to say.
The Feeling of Zero:
I step into the ocean and what comes to me is the feeling of zero. Not in a bad way; in a good way. You might call it “peace” or “balance” or something, but for me that’s those aren’t the right words. I feel zero. My Mennonite upbringing would probably say I am feeling “forgiveness”—but there’s no sense of relief associated with it, and no guilt. It’s quieter. Like zero is what I owe and zero is what is owed to me. Like I’ve done, or am doing, what I have to do, and nothing more is required of me than to be what I am. Zero doesn’t mean that everything is going to be alright, or the way I like it. It means that the world was here before me, and it will be here after me, and THAT is what is alright. I don’t need to do or become or accomplish anything in order to make things different than what they are. Like I do not owe a debt to the Universe and It does not owe me a paycheck. Zero. A good zero.
And one more thing.
I walk in to the ocean, past the breakers when the tide is low. I lie on my back and float, looking up at the clouds. I think, “This is where I will go when I die.” Right there. In the ocean, past the breakers. It’s not a major item of concern for me what happens to my body after I die—my main concern is that it happens a really long time from now. But who are we kidding? I don’t have children or grandchildren who will want to visit my grave. Got knows I haven’t got a red cent to leave behind, so I don’t imagine anyone will feel possessed to bury me.
I used to think about that in the States. “Please, when I die, take me and pour me into warm salt water. Don’t leave me here. If I can’t live where I belong, at least take my ashes there.”
So I float in the ocean, miro el cielo, and I wonder if this is not in some ways like lying in my grave for a while on a sunny afternoon. Just floating. Checking out the scenery. Watching some hunting birds glide by now and again. Sometimes you can see the moon. Feeling the good kind of zero.
Does that seem morbid? I hope not. If it does, I did a bad job of describing it. It’s very peaceful. Then I have to trudge back onto the sand, pedal my bike up the hill, and decide what to make for dinner.
This is a shout-out to my first surf instructor, Court Snider.
At the beginning of 2001, I moved to Tamarindo beach. Everything before that is a long story involving marriage and divorce and coming here a lot for work, but in 2001 all of that was in the past. I decided that I wanted to learn to surf. I’ve always loved water so I had to at least try. Unfortunately, I’ve never been terribly athletic—but lucky for me, surfing is not a team sport so nobody has to pick you. Anybody can play, if you suck you don’t ruin it for anyone else, and as long as you’re having fun, you’re winning. What’s not to love?
You cannot just guess how to surf (unless you’re very young or very athletic—which I wasn’t); somebody has to teach you. Court was in his early 50s then, or at least that’s how I remember it, an American expat with that slow calm that people get after a lifetime of surfing. He borrowed a big foam board from the surf shop where he wife worked and one terribly windy day in February when the there was no swell at all, only flat frothy chop, he took me out in front of the Capitan Suizo Hotel. If I remember right, he didn’t push me into waves—from day one he made me paddle.
It wasn’t pretty. It wasn’t as fun as I’d hoped, either. Court kept grumbling about the “conditions” which meant nothing at all to me—my problem was staying on the board. And I’m not talking about standing up. I’m talking about staying on it lying down. Then you’re supposed to look at what’s coming up behind you while you paddle forward, and the wind is blowing water in your face and you can’t see anything. And then all of the sudden the wave picks up the back of the board and everything goes to hell in a handbasket. I scraped my eyebrow open on the sand on the bottom.
It gets better if you don’t quit.
Anybody who has figured out how to ride a surfboard, even if they screw up a lot, is not a quitter.
Court told me two things I’ll always remember. One, he told me years later as we sat on our boards watching the horizon. It didn’t mean much to me at the time. In fact, to be honest, I thought it seemed a little lame. But I’m closer, now, to his age then. I’ve been surfing longer. I’ve been more places and done more things. Maybe that’s the difference. “Life only makes sense when I’m surfing,” is what he said.
I think about that every single time I’m on a board. “Life only makes sense when I’m surfing.” Or: my life only makes sense to me when I’m surfing. I have to say, I find it true. When I’m surfing, it’s very clear how everything has converged to bring me right here (right there, in the line-up with the tide coming in). And how everything has converged to bring the sets of waves across thousands of miles of ocean to the shore where one girl has traveled thousands of miles and given up everything to meet them. If we were sitting on surf boards together right now gazing into the horizon and I said that to you, it would make all the sense in the world. Guaranteed.
The other thing I got from Court, not about surfing although it has its applications: “Everything works if you let it.” Not applicable to things like deceased machinery and abusive relationships, but within the realm of the reasonable—everything works if you let it. In one way or another. Maybe in the way you had in mind, maybe not. If It doesn’t work, maybe you aren’t letting it. Maybe.
Thank you, Court. For taking me out in the water and showing me how to stay calm. You were right about everything.