Strange Bird

Costa Rica – September 1997

A frog croaks in the distance. It sounds like a slowly dripping faucet. Or maybe it’s a strange bird. I swing back and forth in the hammock. Drift in and out of a fitful sleep. The dreams I have leave me exhausted and full of sorrow. In these dreams I’m a solitary child again, surrounded by hostile faces.

I ask them, “Where do birds go when it rains? Where do they sleep? Have you ever eaten a mango?”

“Who cares?” the other kids retort. “Why do you ask such stupid questions?”

Their derision is like two ice-cold hands around my throat. I wake up sobbing; gasping for air.

The adults that these children have become are now preoccupied with retirement funds, real estate, debt, and stockpiling possessions. If they’ve heard of Costa Rica, they regard it, and any foreign country, with suspicion. If they saw me again they would sneer.

I feel guilty for just lying here, for being sick. There is a waterfall only one kilometer away, and I’m still too weak to walk there.

Heat exhaustion has made me delirious. I chose to hike back to this botanical reserve, Rara Avis, rather than ride on the tractor with the macho driver. I trudged through the thick mud puddles, determined to make it to the lodge before he did. Tiny poison arrow frogs skipped across the trail, sparkling like gems. A thin green snake reared up at me, blocking my way for a few minutes. I stood still and stared back at him. He slithered off into the jungle. I arrived at the rustic lodge, bleary-eyed and nauseous, an ominous pounding in my head.

“The snakers just left,” the manager said. “So you’ve got the lodge to yourself.”

“Snakers?”

“Herpetologists. They’re worse than birders. They did nothing but poke around in the grass, hoping to catch a fer de lance. Idiots.” He pulled out a crusty handkerchief and blew his nose. “Sorry, I’ve got the flu. I hope I can take you on a walk tomorrow, but I can’t promise it.”

“I’d love to see a toucan.”

He scowled. “Toucans are vicious birds. They raid the nests of other species and eat the young. That Fruit Loop image is totally false.” He shook his head in disgust and blew his nose again. “I’m going to bed. Goodnight.”

A shy woman set a plate of spaghetti in front of me. My stomach lurched, but I ate it so her feelings wouldn’t be hurt. Afterwards, the Spanish-speaking staff taught me a game played with symbols on cubes. I wanted to spend all evening in their warm company, but my stomach rebelled. I barely made it to my bathroom before all of my dinner came back up. I brushed my teeth and rinsed off my burning face. My skin was bright red and dry. A violent throbbing at the base of my skull. The thin line between heat exhaustion and heat stroke. I couldn’t see a doctor even if I wanted to. There was no way out of here until morning.

I spent the night on the balcony, in this hammock, undisturbed by mosquitoes. They had no interest in my burning flesh. I was accompanied only by the raving ghosts of my past.

Clouds gather above the lodge; thunder rumbles in the distance. A Morpho butterfly comes to rest on a ledge under the roof. It folds its metallic blue wings together like dainty hands in prayer. I’m okay now. I close my eyes and await the refreshing rain.

It’s been a half an hour since a car has passed. I sit in the weather beaten bus stop, waiting for the bus to La Fortuna. Cows are my only company. My first solo adventure. I should be afraid, but the anxiety that assaults me daily hasn’t followed me here. I’ve spent too many trips in deference to the whims of the people with whom I’ve traveled. Angry at myself for not being more assertive.

A bus putters up the road and comes to a halt in front of me. Black smoke puffs out the tailpipe. I stand up and wait while a teenaged boy gets off. I pay the fare and make my way down the aisle.

“You can sit next to me,” a young man says, startling me. It’s been days since I’ve heard English. “I’m American,” he adds and waits for my relief.

I slide into the seat next to him. I’m not sure where I need to get off. There are no signs anywhere. But I’m not ready to talk again.

He is, however.

His name is John. He’s twenty-one. He’s from New York. His family has money. He works for an adventure tourism outfitter in La Fortuna. All the local men want to kick his ass because he’s slept with their girlfriends. He’s trying to find himself. He’s a recovering cocaine addict. He was in rehab with Courtney Love. She was “heinous.” He despises Europeans. He calls me “dude.”

I need to learn how to keep a poker face when strangers speak English to me.

“I’ll take you up to Tabacon Hot Springs,” he says. “I don’t have to work until tomorrow.”

I nod and fake a smile.

Volcan Arenal rises above the oasis that is Tabacon Hot Springs. A sinister rumbling shakes the ground every few minutes. Water flows down from the volcano, forming streams, waterfalls, and pools amid lush foliage. It ends in a cement pool with a swim up bar. The clientele is mostly retirees. They stare at me when I walk out of the locker room in my bikini.

John sits at the swim up bar, talking to a young couple. He sets a drink in front of me.

“It’s a guaro sour. The local specialty.” He picks the cherry out of the drink and feeds it to me.

The woman’s face tightens. “I ran into Stacy in San Jose,” she says to John. “She said she had to get back to Florida. It’s too bad she had to leave. I really liked her.” She shoots me a look full of reproach.

When I was younger, I would try to win over women of her ilk. I’d act sheepish. We’re just friends. Really.

“Today is my twenty-ninth birthday,” I say to John as I drain my drink and swim out to the artificial waterfall. Women like her can’t conceive of platonic friendships.

He stays behind and talks to the couple, as I hoped he would.

I get out of the pool and walk down the meticulously landscaped paths. Twilight deepens into night. The volcano’s shadow looms in the darkness. Pools of lava glow red through the light cloud cover. I wade into a pool at the bottom of a waterfall, which tumbles over shiny black lava rock. I’d totally forgotten that it’s my birthday. I swim under the waterfall and let it cascade over me, a birthday baptism.

A knock on my door at dawn. John stands in the doorway jingling keys in his hand. A faded red baseball cap on his dishwater curls. Slightly bucktoothed grin. He’s not as cute as he thinks he is.

“Hurry up. We’re going on a hike.”

“What about rafting?” I tuck my t-shirt into my jeans.

“The river’s too low. Three other ladies are going with us. Flight attendants.” He rolls his eyes.

“What’s wrong with flight attendants?”

“Dude, they are so easy to get in the sack.”

“Do you say the same thing about travel agents?”

He looks at me and smirks.

The flight attendants are waiting for us when we get to the office. Their eyes light up when they see John. Their predictability annoys me.

One of John’s colleagues drops us off at the trailhead. We walk into the jungle at the base of a silent peak. The trail goes relentlessly up. The flight attendants take frequent breaks, doubled over with fatigue. John sighs in annoyance and keeps walking. They look after him in dismay.

I keep pace with him. Anger like a red-hot ember, but I keep my mouth shut. My head begins to pound again, and I fear another attack of heat exhaustion.

Suddenly, the heat vanishes, and we’re enveloped in mist and silence. Elegant shawls of moss draped over tree branches. Beyond them an emerald green lake in an ancient crater. Cerro Chato.

“I told you it would be worth it.” John squeezes my shoulders. Cherubic smile that almost shatters my contempt. “I’ll take you to a good massage place after this.”

I lie on a mattress in the middle of the floor. The woman chatters in Spanish as she kneads my aching muscles. She points to her wedding ring.

I shake my head.

“Pourque?”

I shrug and smile. Even if I could speak Spanish, what good would it do to try and explain that I’m happy this way?

She shakes her head sadly and says no more.

After the massage, she scrubs my skin with bright orange volcanic mud. She wraps some in plastic and hands it to me as I leave.

John is waiting outside. We meet up with the flight attendants in a restaurant in town.

Three Dutch men have joined us. They eye the flight attendants with a mixture of smugness and thirst.

We laugh at having survived the climb to Cerro Chato. I recommend the massage lady to them, but they ignore me.

A couple at the next table joins in the conversation. He’s a lawyer from Miami and she’s French, but owns a restaurant in Miami. He sits with his side to the rest of us. Talks to us over his shoulder, as if it’s an afterthought.

“I love your country,” I say to the French woman.

John sneers and downs the last of his beer. “I’m taking off. You better come with me, or you’ll have to walk back alone.”

The flight attendants and the Dutch men look at each other in mutual resignation.

John lingers outside my room. I’ve never been one for casual encounters, but maybe it wouldn’t hurt me to let loose a little. Everyone else does it. It’s been quite a while, and he’s alright-looking. The flight attendants would brag about such a thing.

I open door and switch on the light. John walks over to my bed, lies back with a smirk, and puts his hands behind his head.

I sit down next to him. This is expected of me.

He sits up and kisses me on the lips. It’s hesitant. Lazy. He’s going to do as little as possible. His smirk says, you should be grateful even for this.

Someone coughs in the room next door.

I pull back. This is not me. “The walls are too thin,” I say.

“That wouldn’t stop any other woman pushing thirty, no matter how hot they are.”

I go to the door and open it.

He walks out, shaking his head. “Dude, you are the weirdest chick I’ve ever met.”

I awake in the morning to enthusiastic birdsong. Grateful that I’m alone and that I’ve got nothing to justify. Today, I head back to San Jose. I’m ready to go home. I pack my things and head for the bus station.

The lawyer from Miami is sitting in an open-air restaurant when I walk by. I smile at him. He waves me over. “Marie-France is getting a massage. Do you have time for a drink before your bus leaves?”

I nod and sit down. He waves the sullen waitress over. “Another Coke, please. And…”

“Fanta Uva, por favor.”

A smiles lights up her face.

“You know Spanish?” the man asks when she walks away.

“No, but it doesn’t take a genius to read a soda can.”

The waitress returns with our drinks.

He says, “Thank you.”

I say, “Gracias.”

He takes a sip of his soda, his pinky slightly raised. “Wouldn’t be great to have a private jet to fly around to all these little countries whenever you felt like it?” he says with a flick of his wrist.

“No.”

His eyes widen, and for a moment he’s silent. “Why not?”

“Because rich people are boring. Why come to a place like this and not experience the culture?” I bite my lip, amazed at my bluntness, and yet not ashamed.

He nods. “Good point.” But his tone is unconvincing. He will make a point to not strike up a conversation with the likes of me in the future.

I glance at my watch, and then stand up, and slip on my backpack. “Thanks for the soda.”

“My pleasure. Have a safe journey.” He scans the restaurant, anxiety in his eyes. There is no audience to be found.

As I walk down the rain-warped dirt road, I catch my reflection in a shop window. Strands of hair have escaped my braid. My jeans are too baggy. My t-shirt is wrinkled. A strange play of light upon the glass gives the appearance of wings over my shoulders. Never before have I felt so resplendent.

 

***This travel piece was published in Superstition Review’s Spring 2009 issue.***

Walking Back

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Tatra National Park, Slovakia – June 2015

A rocky, uneven path. A steady, but gentle climb. Lots of room to stumble without falling over the edge. We make a lap around Popradské Pleso, a sapphire-colored tarn, and then continue up another trail. The sun blazes down, illuminating even the darkest corners of the forest. After a gloomy spring, it is a shock to the system. This is my farewell stroll in Slovakia. I already miss this country.

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The wilderness has always been my best medicine. I need it now. A few days ago, my body was seized by a sudden, intense rigidity. The force was so strong that my muscles hurt. My movements became jerky, abrupt. Like a marionette. It felt as if this body, the receptacle that holds my soul, no longer belonged to me. For days, all of my strength was spent warding off panic attacks. And then came the anger at not being able to get a grip. Then the profound dread: I was losing my mind. Then, after several debilitating days, depression: I can’t live like this.

The forest falls aways behind us. The rocks under my feet test my balance. One false step could mean a twisted ankle. I take slow, deep breaths and focus. Every step takes me a little further back into my self. I went to the doctor, something I rarely do. I don’t get regular checkups or tests. I take care of my own self. But I dragged myself in. The examination and tests came back perfectly normal. My physical and mental symptoms are those of a body in transition. I’ve simply begun to move on to the next phase of life. It’s normal for any previous anxiety, and especially panic disorder, to be intensified. The doctor brushed off my questions about herbal supplements and acupuncture. He wrote me a prescription for antidepressants. My heart sank. I threw it away when I got home. My husband held me and said, “We will take care of this together. You are not alone.” I’ve driven back the panic and can function again. But it is lurking just below the surface. To others, I seem normal. At least, that’s what they tell me.

We come to a junction. One way leads to Rysy peak, the other to Vel’ké Hincovo Pleso. Julia tells me that she made it up this far the last time she was here, but she had to turn back because there wasn’t enough daylight left. I let her lead. After nearly two years of hiking together, she has started to find her way without me. Her new confidence makes me smile. She will continue to hike long after I’m gone from Slovakia. Possibly she will forget about me. Such is the way of paths that converge for a short time.

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We stop by a stream that’s swollen with fresh snow melt. I cup my hands, fill them with ice-cold water, and then splash it over my face and neck. A simple, primitive pleasure. Further up the trail, the stream tumbles over large boulders. A flimsy cord is the only guide across. Julia steps from boulder to boulder. I close my eyes and steady myself. My motor coordination has never been strong, but now it’s seriously impaired. I grab onto the cord, and step to the first boulder. I sway back and forth. My head spins. Don’t get angry. You need to be kind to yourself. It’s okay to be unsure. Just focus. I loosen my grip on the useless cord and step across, boulder by boulder, to the other side.

From here, the trail becomes steeper. So steep that there are switchbacks. A rarity for trails in Slovakia. People who started the hike early in the morning are on their way back down. Families with small children. Groups of teenagers. A bare rock wall about three meters high rises before us. Going up is not as difficult as it looks, but I don’t want to think about the descent. The personalities that we pass become more colorful. A deeply tanned Polish woman wearing hot pink spandex and cradling a quivering, rodent-sized canine prances by with a haughty sniff. A young woman with an infant strapped to her back flashes us a goofy, blissful smile. Julia and I exchange an astonished look. How did she get that baby up the wall? Then there are the old ladies. They march along, stabbing their trekking poles into the earth between the rocks. Jaws set. Steely determination in their eyes. Get out of the way or else. Everyone is so confident. Except for me.

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However, what I lack in confidence and coordination, I make up for with stamina and endurance. That, at least, hasn’t left me. I pause to look down on the distance we’ve come. Then I take off. Julia gasps for breath and falls behind. Up here, above the snow line, my force kicks in. I bound forward until a cradle of jagged peaks surrounds me. My heart pounds, not from exertion, but from awe. Again that strange sensation of dissolution. As if my spirit wants to break free and soar and never return. A tremor of panic. I allow myself to feel it and it vanishes.

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I pause by a tiny, snow-crusted tarn and wait for Julia. “So, this must be Vel’ké Hincovo Pleso.”

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She laughs. We continue together towards the wall of peaks before us. Up and over one final hill. Sunlight shimmers off the melting tarn. A vast, magnificent silence. All voices are muffled here. I take a few photos and then flop on the freshly thawed ground. Julia wanders off on her own. Speech is counterproductive up here. It would dilute the magic.

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I spread my arms wide and gaze in reverence. Everything is out of my control. Let it go. The thunder of a rockslide breaks the silence, and then the only noise is the gentle shatter of melting ice on the tarn. I lie still until my awareness seeps back into my cells. I am back.

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