April 28, 2010

Playa Blanca

A mere three weeks after my snaky conversation with Linda, we were in Costa Rica lurching along in our host’s rattletrap van with the cracked windshield and balky door, through the gates and onto the grounds of the finca where we would spend the next few days. As the gate rolled open, we were greeted by a cacophony of yapping dogs, squawking parrots, and a one-legged Toucan named Stravinsky – a small part, our host told us, of his menagerie of rescue animals. He said nothing about snakes. Good sign.

At the Finca near San Jose

Bamboo wind chimes clacked like a marimba in the breeze as our host led me and two other guests on a tour through the Japanese Zen garden, past a koi pond, out to the four-acre tract where poinsettias bloomed big as a trees alongside birds of paradise and pink ginger. My mind raced ahead to an afternoon lolling on the grass, reading and getting lost in this Shangri-La.

Linda joined us in the garden a few minutes later, her smile bright with mischief.  “Did he tell you he had a fer-de-lance here? Right here, in the garden?” I wasn’t falling for that. No way. I looked over at our host.

“It’s true,” he said with the nonchalance due the sighting of a gopher. “He slithered right over my wife’s foot. She was wearing sandals.”

Over the next knoll, he pointed out the copse of thorny bushes he’d planted to keep his dogs away from a nest of boa constrictors.

“Boa constrictors?” I gulped.

“At least six of them. One tried to climb into the aviary and the gardener had to shoot him.”

I decided to skip the garden and spend my afternoon reading by the pool.

Later, while Linda and others in our group sipped Chilean chardonnay on the veranda, my eyes were glued to my computer, surfing the net. I learned that Costa Rica is home to 135 species of snakes, 17 of them poisonous. Each year, more than 500 unfortunates are bitten by these venomous reptiles; 10 of them die. Less than two percent — pretty good odds, I thought. Unless you’re one of the ten. The majority of fatalities occur in remote lowlands without immediate access to medical help. I was pretty sure this applied to my isolated eco-lodge.

The next day our group headed out in our jalopy van for a bone-jarring day trip to Playa Blanca –White Beach – on Costa Rica’ central Pacific coast, a journey our host predicted would take an hour and a half. “There are closer beaches,” he told us, “but I want one that’s safe for swimming.” I shot him a raised eyebrow.  “It’s the riptides,” he said in answer to my unspoken question. “They’re fierce. It’s terrible how many people are killed by the undertows.” If the snakes don’t get met there are always the riptides. To rate my swimming skills poor would be an egregious overstatement, and this trip I wouldn’t have Jack to hang onto. Better just stick to wading, I told myself.

Bumping along in our van

I braced myself on the ceiling as our van pitched and jerked over the potholed mountain road, glad that I’d snagged one of only three functioning seatbelts. From my rear-facing seat I had a perfect view of our crew: eight mostly middle-aged women and one octogenarian man squashed together on bench seats, laughing. They bobbed and weaved in unison as the van swerved, then popped up like jack-in-the-box puppets every time we hit a pothole. I tightened my seatbelt. One good bonk could send me careening straight into a blood-thinning debacle.

About an hour into the trip our host offered coffee, but I asked for a ginger ale instead to calm my stomach, gippy from riding backward in the van.  “Why don’t you change seats with Linda? You might be more comfortable.”    I shook my head no. No way I was going to give up that seatbelt.

As the van chugged up the mountain, I was lulled into a doze. I jerked awake as we swerved to miss, what? – a dog?, a boulder? I didn’t see. Crowded together on the bench seats, we all flopped to the right, and I clutched the roof handle ‘til my fingers went numb. Just as the van leveled off, before any of us could giggle in relief, we were slammed by a ferocious jolt and the sickening sound of metal scraping concrete. My seatbelt dug into my gut; I braced one hand on the ceiling and two feet on the floor while my van mates flopped forward and back, side-to-side. In an eerie second of silence, I saw one chin hit knees, a shoulder rammed into window glass.  What I didn’t see was Linda, short, in the middle of the back row where the van’s springs were shot, catapulted straight up to the roof.

“Oh, sorry, sorry, damn unmarked tope,” our host swore as he pulled over to the side of the road and stopped, pointing to the camouflaged speed break. “Everybody O.K.?”

“O.K. here,” one chimed. “Only lost two marbles,” another joked. But the banter was cut short by a low tremulous moan coming from the back seat. Linda sat up slowly, holding the left side of her head.  She looked dazed and pale and shaky. “My head, I hit my head.” She wasn’t joking.

Someone grabbed an ice pack from the cooler while our host, a retired surgeon, checked Linda’s head, her eyes, her pulse. The rest of us stood in semicircle shifting nervously, barely breathing.  After a tense couple of minutes, he smiled. “You’ll probably have a nasty bump tomorrow, but I don’t think it’s anything serious.”  He chased the rest of us off to the beach while Linda stretched out in the van, better now but still clutching the ice to her head.  As I picked my down the rutted path, carefully sidestepping the gnarly roots that all looked like snakes to me, I shivered to think we’d be – where I’d be – if I’d been the one to crack my head. Good lord, what have I gotten myself into? I thought this was the safe part of the trip.

By the end of the week, despite Linda’s predictions, I hadn’t yet seen a single snake – not at the finca, or on the wooded path to the beach, not on our walks to town or our visits to a forested macaw rescue center. But everyone – everyone – I’d talked to said, there’s no getting around it: when you go to the jungle, you’ll see snakes for sure.

What was I thinking? I fretted to myself the night before I hopped a single-engine Cessna for the flight to the isolated Golfo Dulce. What was I trying to prove going to a place like this alone? Traveling with Jack, I felt protected if not exactly by him, then by his good-luck juju. Jack wasn’t afraid of anything, and his fearlessness rubbed off on me. Nothing bad ever happened with him around.

And if – when, apparently – I saw a snake, what then? Would I watch with fascination, maybe even take a picture?  Or run screaming down the trail, ruining the hike anyone else around? If I heard that a fer-de-lance had been spotted near the lodge, would I don my tennis shoes and carefully make my way to dinner? Or would I hide out in my cabin eating power bars for the next three days?

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Anne Sigmon

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