Saturday, September 26, 2009

Monday night, flames searing my body from the previous day's attempt at riding Roja (no es un caballo--es una muchacha), I filled Malko's yellow plastic tub with hot water and climbed in. When I leaned back the water rose to my neck, and I felt the soreness beginning to fade. I had a nice, long soak--I even did a little snorkeling--and when I finally got out I was refreshed and revivified. My bruised and battered limbs didn't hurt anymore, and as I dried off I sang a song, in fluent Spanish, about the transcendental powers of yellow plastic bathtubs.

Or that's what I imagined myself doing, anyway, as I stood in the cold shower, post-bath. In reality, only about 6% of my body fit in the small contoured space at a time, and after submerging different areas--my legs, my torso, my head--in a futile effort to re-create a "normal bathing experience," the water, which had only been warm to start with, became tepid and then cold. Eventually I gave up the ridiculous contortions and just sat there, hugging my knees, feeling disgusted with Costa Rica's insistence on (cold) showers and feeling sorry for myself. All I wanted was a hot bath--was that too much to ask for? I didn't need one often. Not every day, not even every week: just now and then, after Roja kicked my ass or when I was depressed.

The day had been unusually upsetting. When I woke up I was literally unable to move, I was so sore, and although a handful of aspirin eased the pain I still felt exhausted. My throat hurt, and I wondered if the body aches were partly due to the flu--the swine flu, that is, which I was obviously coming down with, along with malaria, dengue fever, and rickets. I was sick, and I was going to die. In Costa Rica, far from home. I'd be taken to a hospital and, since I don't speak Spanish, I wouldn't be able to ask for the menu. I'd have to eat whatever they served me--beans and rice, probably, maybe with fried chicken. Which actually didn't sound too bad. But still--how would I ask them to turn off the TV? Those Latin American music videos were so weird. So melodramatic and dumb. And all in Spanish, of course.

Spanish. I didn't care about learning it anymore. Nor, for that matter, did I want to have anything more to do with Costa Rica: I didn't want to eat the overpriced peanut butter or the bland, watery avocados, the disturbingly yellow butter, or the overly salty (and freakishly large-curd) cottage cheese. I didn't want to live with toilets you can't put toilet paper in, start sweating the minute I walked away from a fan, or swim in water of questionable safety (cleanliness, current, crocodiles). I didn't want to share my home with ants and geckos, obsess about the distance to a decent hospital, or make new friends. I didn't want to learn to love this country, its ways, and its people; I didn't need a new world, a new reality, or a new life. "Adventure" and "new experiences" suddenly just looked like a lot of hardship and uncertainty: at thirty-five, with a husband and two kids, what need did I have for those things? I'd already been through a lot, lived a lot. And normal daily life, with the ups and downs of marriage, childraising, and work, was turbulent enough. It was hard enough, it was scary enough. Who in their right mind would willingly take on more craziness? Only a fool. Only an crazy person.

The day dragged on--Joedy picked Lula up from school, I tried to lift Malko (my pathetic arms couldn't handle the weight), I fell back into bed, Joedy made dinner, I took more aspirin--and I decided to take a bath. It seemed like a good idea, but I wasn't thinking straight, obviously. In the end it just made me feel more like a loser. Sitting in the cold water, the words "reckless," "folly," and "unfit parent" running through my mind, it hit me that in the month since we'd been in Costa Rica things hadn't felt quite right. A feeling of dissatisfaction had been lurking on the edge of my consciousness, and though I tried to ignore it, to pass it off as temporary, I knew it wouldn't go away. As much as I might enjoy myself here--and I'd enjoyed myself a lot already, it was true--the thought of forcing a happy situation from one that didn't feel natural and right seemed pointless at best. If being surrounded by strangeness made us crave familiarity--Trader Joe's, 24-hour drugstores, streets with clearly marked names, friends, and family--what sense did it make to stay?

I stood up and turned on the shower. The sound of the running water was good because it disguised another sound--one triggered by my sadness and my relief, my huge relief, that someday soon I might take a real bath again.


Sunday, September 20, 2009

Today Malko turned six months old. He began celebrating early, well before dawn, with his favorite drink: milk, straight up. While he drank, his eyes rolled back in his head and the milk dribbled down his chin. When he was done, he burped and smiled.

His mother fell back asleep and after sucking on her ear for a while he practiced crawling. His sister, who was supposed to be watching him, was distracted by breakfast, so he crawled unobserved to the edge of the bed and right off it, landing on the tile floor. He cried a little, but stopped as soon as his father picked him up, and when he was placed in his walker the celebrating began again.

"A-da a-da a-da," he said, "a-ya a-ya a-ya!" He threw his arms up over his head and brought them down, hard, on the tambourine his sister had put on the walker's plastic tray. The tambourine jangled loudly and his sister laughed. The noise woke his mother, and she stumbled from the bedroom, one arm outstretched for a cup of coffee. She joined his father at the kitchen table and they watched him, careening around the room in a diaper and knee-high socks.

Mid-morning, Malko went to the beach. After sampling both wet and dry sand and his hat, he rubbed his eyes, yawned, and passed out on a towel. He slept there in the shade of the palm trees while people around him cracked open coconuts. He slept through the horses that went trotting by and the sound of the incoming tide, and when he started to stir his mother lifted him up. Still half asleep, he blinked, stretched his legs, and stuck out his tongue. He looked creamy and delicious, like a little suckling pig.

The party picked up back at the house. He went skinny-dipping and did some Extreme Splashing in the pool, and then he sidled up to the wet bar and guzzled to his heart's content. When he was done, he looked at things--at the green leaves and red flowers, the blue water, his sister's shiny black shorts--and he listened to things--his father yelling at the dogs, a truck rolling by, his mother humming Happy Birthday. He swung in the hammock and was offered a taste of watermelon and then white chocolate. When his grandparents called, Malko was at the very top of a wave of happiness; when the wave began to crumble, a warm bath was waiting.

He wasn't done celebrating: he reached out his hand to touch the running water and pulled himself up on the side of the bathtub. When he slipped and fell, landing on his back in the water, his mother took advantage of it and washed his hair. She washed the creases behind his knees and between his tiny toes, and then she wrapped him up in a towel and carried him to the bed. She managed to dry him and put his diaper on, but his sister came and lay down beside him. Malko felt the warmth of her body and closed his eyes. Soon he was asleep.


Monday, September 14, 2009

A few days ago we went to the beach early, before the clouds came in from the mountains. It was a hot and windless day, and although it was low tide we decided to sit high up on the beach beneath the palm trees, where it was shady and our skin wouldn't burn to a crisp. We had Astrid and Diablo with us, and Joedy and I took turns hanging out with Lula, who was splashing down in the shallow water, and Malko, who was sitting on a towel and doing his damnedest to put fistfuls of sand in his mouth.

There was a bar about twenty feet away, and we decided to get pina coladas. I walked up to the bar, ordered the drinks, and sat on a wooden stool to wait, gazing at the water and palm fronds in the distance.

"I'm in heaven," I thought, but things became even more divine when the pina coladas were in front of me: the glasses were tall, frosty, and had big pieces of pineapple on them; I closed my eyes when I tasted the rum, and kept them closed a while longer.

I paid and walked back to where Joedy, Lula, and Malko were sitting. There weren't many other people on the beach, and we watched a group of horses being led through the warm tide pools the waves had left behind. Astrid ambled down to the water, no doubt plotting to ambush the four-legged creatures whose poop she devours enthusiastically. When I heard her barking, I looked in the direction of the horses, but they were unperturbed. It took me a second to find my bouncing, barking dog and another second to see the reason for her barking: a black lumpy object washing in on the waves.

From where we sat it looked medium-sized, bigger than Diablo but smaller than Astrid, and it looked, well, hairy. Its copious dark fur lifted and fell with the movement of the water, long thick strands extending and retreating strangely, and it wasn't till Joedy got closer and mouthed the word "monkey" that I understood that the long strands of fur were actually arms, legs, and a tail. "I can't see the head," Joedy yelled to me, and in between thoughts of contaminated water and disease I wondered what had happened to the monkey's head. Had someone shot it? Had something eaten it? It was disturbing to think that body was missing such an important, defining piece, and the sight of the monkey, now just a soggy, limp mass half-dragging against the grey sand, turned my thoughts to other things--things I try hard not to think about.

The sky was darkening, the afternoon thunderclouds suddenly thick and gloomy above the palm trees, and I stood up, waving to Joedy. The buzz from the pina colada had faded as quickly as it had come on, and the dead monkey and the flashes of lightning in the distance made me want to leave the beach immediately. Rain would be falling soon, and although the walk home wasn't long I didn't want Malko or Lula getting wet and catching cold; listening to Malko cough the last few days had been worrisome enough. I lifted a towel to shake it out, and saw the first set of black wings stretched out against the cloudy sky: gliding effortlessly, its small head bent to peer at the monkey corpse now lying flat and vulnerable on the beach, the buzzard banked, swooped closer, and landed in a graceful slow-motion arc. Hopping closer to the body, it leaned forward and began to peck at it, and suddenly there were buzzards everywhere. 

They had materialized, it seemed, from the sand, from the water, from the air, and from the trees; they huddled around the monkey in a shifting black group, all stiff shoulders and gleaming eyes, and still more--tens, hundreds, thousands, I thought--circled above our heads, craning for a better look at what lay on the beach. With the shadowy presence of the flesh-eating birds and the storm clouds that hung down heavy and low, the scene on the beach had become as funereal and grim as it had, seconds before, been carefree and light. Eerily silent and uncannily swift (how had they known?), the buzzards continued to fly in from nowhere. Their long black shapes hovered ominously overhead, and the hungry group around the carcass hunkered and jostled, vying for a chance at the small furry body.

Maybe it was the buzzards' silence, maybe it was their size and number, or maybe it was the thought of the monkey's body, not long ago warm and full of life, that scared me--I don't know. I just wanted to be home and safe. I took Lula's hand and pressed Malko's little body against mine; walking home, Joedy and the dogs a few steps behind us, I thought about all those things I try hard not to think about: illness, accidents, earthquakes, tsunamis. I couldn't not think about them, because they were everywhere, and for a long time--until the rain stopped and the clouds lifted--it stayed that way.

The long dark wings stretched out and glided, banked and swooped. The buzzards, I'm afraid, will never be far away.


Monday, September 7, 2009

After all these years, I still don't know what it is about horses I love so much. Of course, they're animals, and I love animals, but there's something else about them, something that makes me catch my breath and sends little sparkles into my veins, something that pulls at me in a deep, instinctual way that's tempting to interpret as having to do with past lives or totem animals or higher meaning.

When I was young, I half-believed I was a modern reincarnation of Joan of Arc. We share the same birthday, and her strength, bravery, and non-girliness appealed to me, a scruffy tomboy with dreams of grandiosity and a distinct inclination (I thought) towards martyrdom. Joan of Arc was a soldier with an army of devoted followers, and after beating the bad guys she met a dramatic end that not only failed to snuff out her light but contributed to the staying power of her memory and to her ultimate canonization. Long after the flames died out, she continued to shine; in the minds of so many, she was a true hero and saint.

I became infected with the horse bug before I'd heard about Joan of Arc, but knowledge of her and the parallels, in my mind, of her story with mine (the main points being our shared birthday and the fact that we were both martyrs) cemented my love for the fast, strong creatures she rode into battle and that I dreamed of one day owning. Horses symbolized independence and power and a link to a wildness that couldn't be tamed, and I loved them for those reasons. But I loved them--and still love them--just as much for seemingly less important reasons: because of the way their raggedy forelocks fall down over their flat broad foreheads, because they smell at once warm and sour and sweet, because of the sound their hooves make, and because they have big dark eyes and soft noses. I've thought about it so many times--I've analyzed it inside out and up and down and around and around--but, even with all these reasons, I still don't really understand why I love horses so much. It doesn't make sense, it's not explainable: I just love them.

Before coming to Costa Rica, I'd read that the horses here are smaller than their US cousins. I was nonetheless surprised when I saw some wandering around Samara for the first time. Clustered in driveways to pull at particularly gourmet clumps of grass and sauntering in front of moving cars like they knew perfectly well who owned the place, their look--petite, thin, and a little moth-eaten--and their manner--totally comfortable, but skittish anyway--made me think more of emaciated deer and fleas than proud knights and battlefields. These weren't regal steeds, they were oversized dogs! They looked as close, I thought, to a world of romance and magic as a Barbie Princess sleeping bag. My heart didn't skip a beat when I saw these horses, and none of my childhood horse fantasies (all involving stealing, riding away, and being revered by serfs) cranked up. I was disappointed, to say the least--I thought I'd lost the horse bug because of my ripe old age, because I've "matured" and am no longer susceptible to fantasy, to the whims of the imagination. It was unsettling: who would I be now, if I wasn't partly defined by an obsession with everything equine? Was that it--poof, you turn 35, and you're all of a sudden sensible, unmovable, un-carry-awayable? It sounds silly, but the future really did look a little bleaker, a little greyer. I was definitely perturbed.

On Sunday morning, I walked down to the beach, thinking I'd scope out the horse rental scene even though I was still uninspired. I felt a little sheepish imagining myself climbing on the back of an animal whose legs weren't much longer than mine, but I'd seen some saddled horses tied to palm trees and some much-too-big tourists riding along the water's edge, and I thought, what the hell--I might as well give it a shot.

I found the group of waiting horses and waved to their owner, a boy who looked about fifteen. "Euh...un caballo para rentar, por favor? Si? Para una ora? Great!"

The boy looked around at the horses, gesturing for me to pick one. "Tienes un caballo mas rapido?" I asked. I didn't want to go for a boring stroll, after all--if I was going to ride, I was going to ride!

The boy pointed towards a brown horse, and I walked over to it, stretching out a hand to pet its little nose. I felt like I was petting a rabbit. This horse, fast? Are you kidding me? Oh well, I thought, sighing inside, and placed my foot in the stirrup, lurched into the saddle, and clucked for "Rojo" to head down the beach.

It immediately became clear that I'd worn the wrong bra. Although it's been five months since Malko's birth and since the development of my boobs into industrial-sized lactation devices, I still forget, from time to time, that physical activity beyond lying flat and still requires special garments involving ratcheting and materials designed for space travel. Sports bras like the (threadbare) one I'd put on that morning do as much good, from a containment perspective, as a spider web would do with a bowling ball. As Rojo trotted towards the water, I knew there wouldn't be any "mas rapido'ing" happening on this ride; my bosoms flopped up and down, making my entire shirt lift and fall like that of a grossly over-endowed cartoon character. It was ridiculous, and it was painful. Not to be crass, but my boobs? They were fucked. And Rojo? Rojo wanted to RUN!

Yep, it's true--that pint-sized horse ("just a pony," I'd snobbishly thought a few moments before) was all torque and verve beneath his scrawny coat; he pumped his head in the air and pranced sideways, eliciting a few alarmed "whoah's" from me and making me look, I'm sure, like a very terrible rider. Which was one thing I was sure I wasn't: I took dressage lessons when I was young, and went trail-riding whenever I could, and I've always prided myself on feeling confident and natural on a horse. Here I was, though, bouncing painfully in the saddle, pulling hard on the reins, and, in order to minimize chest-flopping, hunching like a geriatric over the horse's neck. I'd thought Rojo would be an easy horse to ride, but just ten minutes into it and my legs were burning, I was gasping for breath, and I had cramps in three different places. A fast horse? Please--what I needed was a wheelchair.

At one point, I actually got off Rojo ("Hang on, Rojo. Whoah! Wait. WAIT!") and walked with him slowly, calmy, along the shoreline. I put my arm around his short neck and talked to him. He seemed happy, and I thought we were bonding. I stopped and looked into his dark eyes and held his nose in my hands, remembering how much I wanted to do just this--walk alone on a beach with a horse--for my entire youth and my entire life. When I clambered back on, I decided to let Rojo run a little; forcing thoughts of neck injuries and paralysis out of my mind, I tapped his sides with my heels and loosened the reins. He ran! For a few seconds, until I got scared again. Then we slowed down and walked some more.

We walked all the way back (I had to pull on the reins even harder on the way home), and when we got to where the other horses were tied beneath the palm trees I slid off Rojo's back and handed the reins to the boy I'd spoken to earlier. He asked if the ride had gone well, and knowing that he was probably wondering why I hadn't let Rojo run more I answered "si, pero..." and pointed to my back, making a cringing face. I didn't know the word for bra in Spanish, and I thought pointing at my boobs and jumping up and down might send the wrong message.

Leaving the beach, I looked for a place to sit and catch my breath: I was absolutely, pathetically worked from the hour ride. There was a low stone wall close by, so I staggered over to it and sat there, panting and feeling like an idiot. The Costa Rican horses clearly weren't as wimpy as they looked, and I clearly was much less in shape than I'd thought. Holy jesus, I thought, the midday sun beating down on my head, how did Joan of Arc do it without a decent bra?

I limped back up the street towards home, and despite the soreness starting to set in I felt relaxed and happy. More than anything, though, I felt relieved: horses were still there. They were on the beach and in the street, and they were on my mind and in my heart. It had been made clear that I'll never ride like Joan of Arc, but that doesn't matter to me, because the horses are faster and stronger than ever.


Friday, September 4, 2009

Ah, the joys of home cooking after seven days of eating on the road! Nothing like a heaping bowl of goldfish and two sizable mugs of white wine!

Having moved into our new home in Samara last night, we went shopping this morning for food and various essentials in Nicoya, the biggest town nearby. At the meat counter of the main grocery store, where a truck blasts great salsa in the parking lot to promote a particular brand of dairy products, I requested "bisteca para quatro" and was very happy that I'd been understood, even though four people cut in front of me in line beforehand.

We drove the thirty minutes home with our bisteca, four pieces of whiteish meat I think was pork, a bunch of other food, a bathtub and walker for Malko, and the rest of the cash we needed to give Pierre, our new landlord. Tonight we thought we'd eat the steak with steamed carrots and a salad, but something went wrong and everything turned out really gross. Totally yucky, totally inedible. The salad's ok, I guess, but it's sitting in a baking dish and somehow that throws it off for me. The house we've rented for the month is really cool, with tables made out of big slabs of tree trunk, a small swimming pool, screens on all the windows, WiFi (you can Skype us!), AC (which I don't think we'll use), two bathrooms, art on the white-painted walls, a washer and dryer, and lush plants all around, but the kitchen is VERY poorly equipped--there's no garlic press, no cutting board, no big bowls, only a dinky (broken) coffee maker, etc. I'm not complaining--Joedy and I will need to buy our own kitchen gear here anyway--but it did make for a disappointing first dinner in our new home. Although I did make up for it with goldfish and wine, and Joedy is at this very moment turning the sad hunks of overcooked bisteca into stew! Woo-hoo!

I absolutely mean it when I say I'm not complaining, because by golly and gum we almost lost this house because of good old me, and if we had lost it we would probably still be at Hotel Samara, hating the mildew-drenched upholstery and the fact that our cat, while traveling, interpreted Malko's car seat (Three. Separate. Times.) as the place to void his bladder and bowels. I'm very grateful that I didn't screw things up--I'm grateful Pierre took us back after I told him we didn't want the house after all and made the whole family drive six hours away to another town, one I thought was safer and better, less crocodiley, closer to a hospital, more populated with gringos--and I can honestly say that Samara feels right; I feel at home.

What happened is that my role as the Worry Monster got a little out of hand, and the night before we were originally supposed to move in I lay awake thinking about how I'd never let Malko and Lula in the ocean here (the crocodiles really DO swim from river mouth to river mouth, cruising through the waves of the two beautiful beaches Samara sits on), and in a sleep-deprived blaze of what I thought was sanity I decided there was no reason to stay in this town any longer, we needed to go. So in the morning I told Joedy this, and despite his request to sensibly, calmly, maturely investigate the threat of the crocodiles I didn't waver. And so I told Pierre we didn't want the (wonderful) place anymore. And made us all pack everything up AGAIN and drive AGAIN for the whole day.

And when we got to where I wanted to go (Manual Antonio), guess what? I hated it. I resented all the wealthy gringos sitting in the American-style restaurant we went to for dinner, the way they yukked it up (condescendingly, I thought) with the Costa Rican staff, all the goofy "tropical" attire,* the fact that "Ladies Night" and "Happy Hour" were proclaimed at every bend in the road, the fact that I found myself caring what these loaded ex-lawyers and ex-whatevers thought about me, the fact that I didn't feel like I was in real Costa Rica at all anymore but, like, a Disneyland Costa Rica.

The conclusion of this Idiot's Tale is that Joedy very kindly forgave me for making us leave Samara and Pierre very kindly took us on as renters, again. We left the next morning, and I was SO INCREDIBLY GLAD. We got here last night, and it looks like we might be in this town for a while. It's small, but bigger than Montezuma, and it's flatter, less densely forested. Horses wander around in the street in groups, shying and rolling their eyes like teenagers with too much attitude, and so far everyone I've raised the crocodile issue with confirms they're not una problema.

Everyone says moving to another country changes a person. I've decided it's going to change me by making me less of a worrier. Henceforth, when thoughts of crocs, snakes, scorpions, and rabid monkeys start creeping in, I'm going to channel Wanda Sykes. I saw her a few years ago on TV, and I loved the way she summed up her thoughts on deep issues: when someone asks her, for example, whether she prefers "paper or plastic," she casually tosses out "I don't give a fuck."

Crocodiles? I don't give a fuck. Long roads to emergency rooms? I don't give a fuck. Of course, I really do give a fuck, but egads--I've worried enough already. It's time to relax a little. And it's time to eat some more fucking goldfish.

*all charges of snobbery fully accepted