Costa Rican Voodoo by Sherri Harvey

The pinky finger of a landing strip into Tambour Airport in Costa Rica juts out into deep blue and milky-frothed ocean and dares the eight-passenger plane to land. I start making jokes to my husband, D. about the plane going down, crashing, missing the strip. I comment on how inviting the water looks in case the pilot has trouble seeing the minuscule landing spot. Next, I make a joke about how hard it must be to land a T. Rex onto a lily pad. I think I’m being funny.

My husband doesn’t. In fact, he doesn’t respond. As I look up to see why, tears leak out of his shut-tight eyes and sweat drips onto his white T-shirt. I’m laughing with joy and sick humor and he’s crying with fear.

As I remind myself that he has never been out of the United States (and that he has never been to a developing country with a band-aid of a landing strip,) I remember what it feels like to be in a foreign land where everything feels, well, foreign. Since we’ve been married for ten years, I remember that he usually laughs with me. Since he’s clearly afraid, I cut him some slack. I remind myself that flying terrifies him. I try to be kind, but I am so excited to be here! I remind myself as well that he is the person I am spending the next nine days with. I apologize for the teasing and make nice. I tell myself: do not make another joke about dying even if it kills me.

 As the plane lands amidst the monster palm trees, the bamboo fields and the grass as tall as one-story houses, no buildings in sight, I remind him that the airport in Tambour isn’t really a traditional airport.

“Remember? We talked about this when I was planning the trip?”

He seems to have forgotten that we looked at TripAdvisor’s pictures of a hut structure with a bamboo thatched roof together when I was planning the trip.

On exiting the tiny plane, we are surrounded by citrus trees and ocean. D. asks the flight attendant if this is the airport. She says what else would it be? D. asks her where the car rental place actually is since we don’t see any buildings. She tells him to walk down the red dirt road about ten minutes and turn left at the palm tree with the blue ribbon around it.

  1. forces a smile as the sweat continues to pour from his face. He thanks her while he shoots me a dirty look.

We grab our backpacks and start heading out of the tarmac area. A heavy fermented-fruit smell fills my breathe. The humid air coats my dry skin. An earthy pungency rests on my tongue. As I look around, the simple thatched roof construction of the airport, the dirt roads rich with maroon soil, the azure water so close I can hear the waves and taste the salty water makes me feel a million miles away from my job, my mortgage, my routine. No buildings, no smog, no internet. A robin-blue horizon line between the trees. All of it makes it feel like we’ve stepped back in time. No fences line the open runway. No security guards protect the plane.

Before we leave the tarmac area, I ask D. to take a picture of me on the runway and hand him my phone. He’s trying hard to go with the flow so he obliges, mouth set in a straight line, fists clenched. He shoots the photo but I know he’d like to shoot me for taking him out of his comfort zone into this wild land.

After the photo, we both head for the car rental place. I know he is uncomfortable, so I try to be sensitive.

I say to myself….this trip is NOT a mistake., not a mistake…

After our mile-hike to the rental car place, which is another thatched-roof building, I knew not to count on cell service and get out the paper map I brought. D. insists on driving the twenty miles to the town of MalPais: bad land. He likes to be in the driver’s seat. As I navigate to the hotel I’ve booked, he complains about the potholes-to-another-world in the road.

“Honey, we aren’t in California. Can you try to let go of the hustle?” I say. “We have no time schedule.”

 I think to myself: who am I talking to?

Tension hangs heavy in the car. Instead of talking, I roll down the window and look around for signs of civilization. No houses, no people. The dense jungle has not lost its upper hand on the land. Iguanas and chickens darting alongside the road. Their movement, slow and fast, jerky and smooth, makes me giggle. I marvel at the strange sounds that the clay-colored robins and laughing falcons make as their songs echo in the dense jungle.

Since it’s now lunchtime and we are both hungry, we stop for a chicken sandwich at yet another thatched-roof hut on the side of the road. After we both wolf down our sandwiches, D. says:

“That was one greasy chicken”

“Maybe it’s wild chicken–gamier.” I offer.

I try not to think about what it might have been.

Before getting back on the road, I go around back to look for a bathroom. D. waits in the car. As I make my way behind the back of the hut, I spot a spit over an open-fire barbecue pit. There are no fat, meaty chickens. In fact, I am pretty sure I see skinny iguanas cooking over the fire. I decide to forgo the bathroom and return to the car.

Do I tell him?

“Honey, I believe we just ate iguana sandwiches.”

I watch the edges of D. s mouth rise slightly for the first time since the plane landed.

The meandering drive, the rough roads, the absence of street signs, contrast with our very fast life at home in California. I start to feel hopeful that D. will soon start relax on this “wild trip you planned” (his words). We have both been so busy working this past year that we both needed some time off. I teach college English and D. is a farrier. Shoeing horses is hard work. Before the trip, we talked about the excitement for weeks. Would it live up to the fervor? It’s hard for D. to travel without a plan. It’s hard for him not to have things charted out. I realize, as I watch him, that it’s hard for me, too. Since I convinced him to come, the burden of enjoyment falls on me. And I’m waiting for the vacation magic to start, even though I know I am not responsible for his happiness. Our relationship has been built on letting go of the responsibility of making each other person happy.

 I wonder if maybe it’s me who needs to relax?

 After about two hours on the same holy, skinny dirt road, we finally, we get to the modest hotel. After dropping our backpacks in the hotel room and heading to the bar, I grab my purse and remind D. to keep his passport on him at all times, even when going down to the bar for a much-needed drink. As we sit in the open-air, thatched-roof bar, ocean breeze blowing my hair and caressing my cheeks, listening to the sound of unrecognizable birds and monkey song, and watching an array of iguanas and lizards as we sip Lava Flows, I am grateful for the drinks. The fruity drink files our rough edges a tad as we both try to let go.

We decide to go back to the room to change for a swim. D. looks around the tiny room and realizes his black backpack is missing. The backpack contains his clothes, his toiletries, his boating and gardening magazines. However, my fluorescent yellow backpack is sitting right where I left it–on the bed.

  1. gives me a death look–as if I had something to do with it.

“Did you hide my backpack?” he asks. “Ok, give it up. Where is it?”

“Honey, I did NOT. I was with you the whole time.”

He scowls. He has not yet forgiven me for my tarmac turbulence jokes. Although the liquor had started to help him relax, I now watch his shoulders tense up. I see him clench his jaw. For some reason, since I laugh when I am nervous, I laugh. D.stands to sober attention as he reminds me that this is not funny.

“Your back back is still sitting where you left it on the bed but mine is gone” he barks.

I point to the open window and raise my eyebrows. Both of us realize it’s gone.

  1. shoots daggers through my body and curses me for planning such a crazy trip.

 We go back to the bar to talk to the manager who then calls the police. I order another cocktail while waiting for the police to show up. We both chat with the expat American bartender. “Living is cheap here. Costa Ricans don’t make a lot of money. The average wage of a teacher is $600 a month. Police make about $11,000 yearly.”

“Wow. That’s not much.” I say.

“Tourists as easy targets anywhere–but especially here in Costa Rica.” she comments.

  1. retorts, “Well, living here is their choice. And that’s no reason to steal.” Right now, he’s feeling scorned and doesn’t have much sympathy.

I think: he is taking the theft personally.

 “Rough start for a vacation.” the bartender says.

When the the police arrive, the round one asks “What was in your bag?” The skinny one takes notes on an official-looking yellow legal pad.

  1. stops to think. “Mostly clothes. And a toothbrush. Nothing else, really.”

As the officer writes, I watch D. squirm.

Officer Round remind us to be glad we have our passports. Dealing with replacing a passport is a nightmare, he says. Don’t leave anything unattended here.

After the police leave, D. wants to check out of this hotel and go find another one. He says “Maybe this hotel has bad mojo.”

I think but don’t say: maybe your mojo is bad…

I don’t want to fight. He can pick. He looks at the map and decides to head to Montezuma On the drive, I roll the windows down and drink it all in–the wild birds singing, the prehistoric-sounding howler monkeys roaring from treetops, Spanish music playing on the radio.

Across the street, I see an unkept middle-aged man walking barefoot. He is about D.’s size.

“I think the walking man is wearing your REI plaid shirt.” I am trying to lighten the mood with humor. He looks at the bedraggled walker and realizes I am joking. He raises his eyebrows at me.

After an hour in the car to no specific place, D. picks a hotel in Montezuma called The Monkey Inn. He knows I like monkeys. The eco-friendly hotel sits in a small carved-out section of dense jungle terrain across the street from the ocean. The little cabanas with thatched roofs all face the ocean and the metal doors attached to the frame open wide to the tropical landscape. As we check to see if they have a room, the capuchin monkeys around the lobby entrance me. Even jumping around in the trees, their human-like white-whiskered faces make me smile. As I stare at their little faces, I think about evolution. Happily, as I snap away with my camera, the hotel clerk says “Don’t smile at them. Or if you do, cover your mouth. When they see teeth, they get offended. They might pee on you.”

I could watch them all day, but D. wants to check out the surf. Take a walk. First, we go check out the room. I throw on my swimsuit and leave my bag there on the bed. I don’t have anything but clothes in my bag. I make a joke about him having nothing left to steal. He smiles a weary smile. But at least it’s a smile.

We decide to take the car so we can drive around after. D. steers the car toward the water on a narrow two-lane road and parks by a cardboard sign that says “Playa Cocolito” taped to a palm tree and written in red crayon. It’s a short walk down an overgrown green trail to the beach.

At the end of the trail, a pearlescent-sand beach stuns us both. The intersection of see-through water, blank sand, shiny rocks, untamed jungle and sapphire sky stops us. There is not another soul anywhere in sight. On one side, the turquoise sea stretches as far as the eye can see and on the other, the thriving verdant jungle lines the sand. In places where the jungle breaks, streams seem to connect the jungle to the sea. Mango and banana trees line the edge of the shimmering sand. A kingfisher silently waits on a limb above a puddle and waits for us to pass. Dashes of color decorate the trees–fruit or bird? We look at each other without saying a word. We delight in the simple pleasure of such untouched-by-human-hand land.

As we walk along the pristine beach, spotted yellow and black butterflies dart around and bright purple and orange jungle crabs burying themselves in departing waves. Silently, we both watch a giant sea turtle emerge from the ocean, her wet flippers soon covered in pebbled sand. Slowly, the hulking sea turtle pulls herself up the beach’s crest. She moves like she’s not used to dragging her 400-pound frame on dry land. Oblivious to our presence, she begins to dig. Soon a massive hole has emerged not thirty feet from us, and this majestic sea creature begins to lay her eggs. Little white spots dot the sand. When her duty is done, she covers her precious deposits and lumbers back toward the sea.

I am overcome by a desire to follow her into the water. D. wants to walk a little more, to grab a mango from a tree and have a snack. We part ways for a bit.

I realize that he needs a few minutes without me.

As I enter the low tide, I am careful not to step on turtle eggs. The sun has spent her day warming the ocean to bath-water temperature. As I slip into the water, I start to let go and feel light for the first time today. The gentle surf caresses me. The salt water takes my body and starts the unclench my tight muscles. As I float, my hair spreads out around my head. I turn over and float face-down, eyes open. As I watch the tiny pebbles and sand swirl with the tide pull, I think about how little control any of us really have of our surroundings. Really, of our lives. As I watch the turtle pushing out, I am reminded of how lucky I am, how lucky we both are. We both have jobs. We both have the means for an income. We live in a place where opportunities for employment outnumber the population. We have indoor showers in our bathroom. We get to see monkeys, and wild birds. We get to swim with turtles. The turtle goes with the current. She seems to be smiling.

After about twenty minutes, I wonder what D. is up to. As I get out of the water, conscious of the weight and power of my step, I walk as lightly as I can. I head back up to the beach and look for his shape in the distance. Maybe five hundred feet away I see him interacting with some large shape, taller than him and on four legs–cream-colored. I squint. My distance vision tries to focus.

 What is that? A big dog?

The shimmering sun behind toothpaste-white clouds could be playing tricks. A horse? On the beach? Alone? I scan the beach for more of his species, and see nothing. Since I don’t want to break their spell, I resist my urge to call out “Honey, is that really a HORSE?”

I saunter up, hoping the horse stays so, I, too, get to meet him. His arched neck, deep chest, well muscled back and slightly rounded belly tell me he’s healthy. And as I get closer, I take note of the unkempt mane, gritty and matted on the ends. He’s wild. They are both standing under a mango tree. I watch as his dark muzzle rests on D’s hand as he shares the last of his mango. As the horse finishes, he turns back toward the dense vegetation and disappears.

As I reach D., my jaw hangs in amazement and I stare incredulously at him.

He flashes me a knowing and relaxed smile that catches the waning warmth of the Costa Rican sun and reflects the tranquility of the plum-blush afternoon light.

He tells me “I think he wanted my t-shirt-he grabbed it with his teeth. But instead, since I don’t have a spare, I shared my mangos.”

We both laugh, finally feeling ready for vacation magic.

BIO: Sherri Harvey currently teaches English in California’s Silicon Valley, holds an MA in Modern Fiction and an MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She spends her days trying to balance thinking with doing by pouring over words, taking pictures, galloping her horses, hiking with her dog, scaring her husband and drinking vodka. She believes that the childhood force that gave shape to her thinking was the opportunity to travel extensively. When in doubt, go somewhere. She has published in Animal Literary Magazine, daCunha Global Storytelling, 3Elements Literary Review, TaxiCab Mag, Sunday Night Stories, Light, Space & Air and daCunha. She blogs for Women Who Explore. Check her out at sherriharvey.com.