Plan C

Plan A was going pretty well. Nobody’s life is perfect, but we didn’t have a lot to complain about. After five years in the USA, we were back in Costa Rica’s endless summer, working our butts off and surfing. Making decent money, having a good time, riding around on the motorcycle, chilling in our hammocks. Something like that is worth aspiring to. That was Plan A, and it was a really good plan.

In Plan A, there are two of us, and we live in Costa Rica.

Then, two months ago, Plan A crumbled in a major earthquake. Pio wasn’t feeling well. Medical tests revealed a malignant stomach tumor that had metastasized to his liver—and had already made a wreck of it. It is impossible to guess how long all of this was going on without giving any indication except for disturbing premonitions that I refused to listen to, because, how can you tell a premonition from paranoia? (And what do you do about it anyway? Say to your perfectly-healthy husband, “Honey I think there’s something wrong with you?” Probably not.) We got on a plane and came to Italy. Things were sliding quickly down a slippery slope.

So I had to wrap my head around Plan B. In Plan B, there’s only one of us. It’s me, and I am a widow. The doctors wouldn’t say anything more than, “This is very advanced,” and “It’s a shame you’re so young.” For about 6 weeks, I worked on that one. Slowly. In very small increments. One dreadful piece of the puzzle at a time. Just because you think about something doesn’t mean it will happen. But it doesn’t do you any good to refuse to think about the possibilities. So I went there. And sat with that for a while.

I have something to say about Plan B. If you haven’t thought about this before, here’s the newsflash:  in general, women live longer than men. Most of us will become widows. Sooner or later. Tumors aside, there was always every chance that Plan B was going to follow Plan A. I’m not being morbid–I’m being observant. Part of me said I knew that someday this was going to happen, and another part answered that I didn’t expect it NOW.

And then the slide down the slippery slope suddenly slowed. So Plan A is still lying in ruins, while Plan B is also indefinitely delayed, thank God.

Which brings us to Plan C.

Plan C is better than Plan B, because there are two of us. But one of us is sick, so it’s not a happy plan like Plan A. It has happy days, though. It has happy moments. It has scary ones and sad ones too because the ghost of Plan B has been introduced to the scene and stands quietly in the corners. In Plan A, you decide things together. In Plan B, you decide them all yourself. Plan C has some of each. In Plan A, you get to do what you want with your life. In Plan B, you do what you want with what’s left of your life (if you can think of anything). In plan C, you stay in Milan and wonder what’s going to happen to you, how long you’re going to have to stay there. You don’t know if it will be for months or for years, and you don’t know which of the other two Plans this Plan C is going to give way to.

But you know it will be one or the other. Sometime. Whenever that is. Whatever is required of you in between.

Rainbow over Corsico, July 2017

Semana Santa

I love Semana Santa. Grumpy gringos love to hate it, but I just love it and that’s all. I love the chicharras. I love the air that’s too hot to breathe and smells like wood smoke from a fire in the mountains somewhere. I love the hazy stars. I love the badly-acted religious movies from 1970 that they play every year on TV. I love the maranones. I love the jocotes. I LOVE the rosquillas.

When I first came to Costa Rica as a student in 1991, the only time I got little case of Montezuma’s Revenge was because I ate too many rosquillas in Semana Santa. Gotta watch those little buggers with all that manteca. Talk about indigenous cooking. Ground corn, manteca, that hard salty smoked cheese, salt…am I forgetting something? Probably.  They don’t look that good. They don’t sound that good. And the first time I saw my host mother dump a handful of those odd little round biscuits into her tall glass of sweet black coffee? Bleagh! I thought in my innocence.

Oh silly me. Once you start on them, you can’t stop.

I love Semana Santa.  I love everything being closed in the middle of the week.  I love families sitting in the shade of trees in their yards. I love families playing with their fat little babies on the beach. I love drunk uncles lounging in the shade beside coolers full of cold drinks, tuna and soda crackers. Grumpy gringos love to hate it, but I just love it and that’s all.

It’s been a year since I’ve been back in Costa Rica, back home.  Immigration renewed my residence, considering me to have been a resident even during the time I was gone.  (I never thought an immigration document could make me almost burst into happy tears but when I read that, I had to take a deep breath.) I missed Semana Santa so much.  Not the chaos-at-the-beach part of Semana Santa–all the rest of it.  If you live in Costa Rica and you have no idea what I’m talking about, my sincere condolences.  There’s more to it than traffic jams at the coast.

They say every year on Sabado de Gloria, it rains.  And honestly, it usually does.  Maybe it’s the moon, this “Christian” holiday being situated on the Sunday after the first full moon after the Spring Equinox.   The monkeys are in the trees calling for rain.  The chicharras call for it.  The cenizaros don’t make a sound, but you can see them beckon if you watch.

I love Semana Santa.  I missed it so much.  Easter is a nice day, but let’s not kid ourselves.  Latin America knows how to celebrate a thing in a way that North America never will.  Sorry for all the grumpy gringos.

Bill Ulmer: One Year Behind Bars and Still Waiting For a Sentence

A year ago today I was at work in the clinic in Washington State trying to focus on the tasks in front of me, but I was having a hard time. Bill was leaving for Hawaii that day with his new wife on a belated honeymoon. A lot of us were worried about her. Certain circumstances surrounding the trip made me very nervous—and I’m not the only one. A lot of people were having trouble getting their work done at their desks a year ago today, and a lot of prayers for safety were being said for the new Mrs. Ulmer.

Then something crazy blipped through my Facebook messenger: Bill has been detained at the airport.

What?

Yes. The cops detained him at the airport. He isn’t allowed to fly.

What?!

It took the whole day for details to fill in and confusion to untie itself. All day long, my hands shook. My phone went crazy with messages. At 4:45 PM, as I gathered my things to leave work, my phone rang and the person who called me said words to me that I had not ever been able to dream of hearing. “Bill was arrested. He’s being held in custody. The feds mentioned Barbara’s name in open court.”

I made it past the time clock, out the door and into the car before I burst into tears. Happy tears, because Barbara deserves at least that acknowledgement. Happy tears, because I am not a crazy liar like Bill told everyone who read the story on my website. Happy tears, because I know he laughed when he thought he got away what he did. Happy tears, because Mrs. Ulmer is safe and I will not be looking for her body or listening to lies about false tragedies.

I kept saying, “Oh my God, he killed her,” over and over. Not like that was news to me. Not that murder is among the charges—it isn’t. But it became real to me in a new way when I heard that Bill Ulmer was behind bars and that federal officials know perfectly well that there is every reason to believe he could tell us what happened to Barbara Struncova.

A year has passed. Bill pleaded guilty to the counts of Misuse of Passport and Aggravated Identity Theft. I’ve listened to lots of voices speculate on how long his sentence will be, and I’ve heard numbers ranging from one year to fifteen. I personally have no idea what to expect.

The thing I did not expect—that no one expected—is that one year after being taken into custody, Bill is still awaiting sentencing. If there is any further investigation going on, I am unaware of it. I hear that this is the court system being pokey or backed-up. Hmmm. The longer Bill waits for his sentence, the more obvious is the possibility that by the time he receives it, he may have served a significant portion of its time. I guess I don’t much care why it’s taking so long or how much longer it takes. I only care that he is not done being punished yet.

Barbara, by now, is a fish or a small tree with greening leaves or a bird or all of these things. She is hermit crabs and raindrops and cicadas. We all turn into new creatures, someday.

And Bill, I am sorry you are reading this in a jail cell. I am sorry you didn’t just break up and walk away. I am sorry you aren’t surfing and that Barbara isn’t in Czech Republic with a handsome husband, chasing her toddlers around a park.  But what’s done is done.  And you can’t fool everybody indefinitely no matter how good of a liar you are.

(P.S.  Your friend James Henrickson got two life sentences for his shenanigans, so don’t feel sorry for yourself.)

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.

Like our Facebook page called “Where is Barbara Struncova?”

Barbara's face

“Lost in Paradise” by Crime Watch Daily: The Story of Barbara Struncova and Bill Ulmer

Last Monday, November 9, Crime Watch Daily dedicated three segments of their programming to the story of Barbara Struncova and Bill Ulmer. They called the story:

LOST IN PARADISE: INTRIGUE AT A TROPICAL SURF RETREAT.
Click to watch it.

I am very happy with their presentation of the story. All of Barbara’s friends, as far as I know, are pleased with the piece. Some of the minor details—like which roommates lived where when, and who started what websites—are confusing or incorrect, but there are no mistakes in anything that matters.  Endless thanks to everyone who put themselves out there and shared their piece of the puzzle!

The story is not over.  Five years is a long time, but five years is not forever.  The earth and the climate in the tropics quickly devour things, but they also spit them up.  Crocodiles do not eat board bags, and neither do worms.  Earthquake happen and erosion is constant.  We may never know what happened to Barbara.  Then again, time may be on her side.

If you wish to participate in the effort to create justice for Barbara Struncova, here is a small list of things you can do:

–Like the facebook page Where Is Barbara Struncova?
–Share the video or posts about her disappearance on your timeline (put the audience setting to “public” on those posts, please!)
–Type #justiceforbarbara into the comment box on facebook posts about Barbara or about Bill
–Use #justiceforbarbara if you are a twitter user (I try but it’s so not my thing)
–Send the link to Crime Watch Daily’s report to news stations and news papers
–Write a letter to the North Carolina governor, Pat McCrory (http://governor.nc.gov/contact)

I don’t know exactly what you or I can expect any of those things to accomplish.  But you can do them all from your chair.  The other option is to do nothing.  We all know exactly what that will accomplish.