I get dressed quietly and walk to the deserted beach. I need time alone this morning to brood.
Last year, after Norma and I visited Costa Rica at the invitation of a friend, we vowed to return with our three children. We were certain they’d be as enthralled as we were by this rugged, beautiful country, its tropical rain forests and steaming volcanoes and crowded markets. Mistake number one.
Maybe they’re thrilled to be here but just won’t let on; as a teenager I, too, affected nonchalance if my father tried too hard to impress me. Then again, maybe I never should have promised we’d get to see Costa Rica with the naked eye, the raw heart, with our vulnerability as Americans who have so much and understand so little. Why then, my daughters ask, won’t I let them go to a bar alone? Why, Norma’s son wonders, do we have to visit one more church?
Of course they want to be independent. (Haven’t we encouraged independence?) Of course we bring out the best and the worst in each other. What do you call families such as ours, with our comings and goings, loyalties and divided loyalties? Certainly not blended, which suggests something creamy and smooth.
On a nearby dirt road two men bicycle to work, shovels strapped to their backs. I wave; they wave back. Until recently, the only way to get to this small coastal settlement was by rickety bus and dugout-style canoe, and the main streets are still more suited to walking or riding bicycles than to driving around in rented Japanese cars. There are few stores or restaurants; even at the fanciest hotels, bathrooms are shared and there’s no hot water. Of course many of the locals probably wouldn’t mind a few luxuries: indoor plumbing, telephones that work. Is it selfish for me to want a paradise like this to remain the way it is? Isn’t that just another kind of colonialism?
I study the beautiful black-sand beach; I’ve never seen anything like it. I hear the cry of howler monkeys in the distance, wild and mysterious. The monkeys, I’m told, rely on howling rather than fighting to stake their claim to a particular patch of forest. Maybe I need to remember that teenagers — with all their sullenness and sarcasm — are staking claim to something, too. Probably the last thing they want to hear when they’re arguing with each other is another of my pieties about love.
I wonder if Norma and the children are up yet. (Stop calling them children.) I follow the foaming edge of the breakers back to the hotel, where I discover that our rented car has a flat.
I’m not worried; there’s a spare in the trunk. After we eat breakfast, I get out the jack. My daughters look at each other doubtfully — I’m not famous for my mechanical ability — but everything goes smoothly. Then I search for the hotel manager to ask where we can get the tire fixed.
The manager is listening to reggae music, swaying like a palm tree in a breeze. No one in town fixes tires, he says. You might be able to get help a few miles south. We’re not heading south, I say. He shrugs.
I don’t want to risk driving north tomorrow without a spare: ocean on one side of us, jungle on the other, no AAA to call, no phone to call from. The manager gives us directions. We pile into the car.
I drive slowly, extremely slowly. An earthquake struck here a couple of years ago, badly damaging many roads and buildings. We cross a river on a rattling, unsteady plank bridge. The road gets worse. I slow to fifteen miles an hour. Ten. Finally we find it: a run-down house with chickens in the yard, car tires, truck tires. Yes, the woman on the porch says, they fix tires: bicycle tires. I stare at her. At the tires. The chickens. Maybe she misunderstood. In my halting Spanish, I try again. Her answer is the same.
Well, I say, can anyone help us? The woman smiles sadly at my broken Spanish, my worried look. She points south, toward Bribri. But Bribri is at the end of the road. From Bribri there’s only jungle to the Panamanian border. We’re heading north, I protest. She points south.
In Bribri, our guidebook says, we’ll find a bank, a couple of bars, and a clinic run by the ministry of health. There is, the book advises, “no highly developed tourist infrastructure.”
The road veers away from the ocean and winds inland through dense tropical forest. Just another half hour, another half year: a lovely drive if you’re not worried about getting another flat, sliding into a ditch, sitting in the car all day, all night, swatting at fat mosquitoes. Yesterday I was king of the road, lecturing my kids about the misfortune of living in a culture that’s materially affluent but spiritually impoverished. Today, I’m nostalgic for gas stations, truck stops: everything ugly about America.
Each time the road changes from asphalt to gravel we raise a big cloud of dust, and now the sky has started to cloud over, an ominous sign during the rainy season. I should have left everyone back at the hotel, I think glumly. I should turn around.
I remember reading something by the French writer Albert Camus before we left home. What gives travel its value, Camus wrote, is fear: at a certain moment, he said, when we’re far from our own country, we become seized by an instinctive desire to go back to the protection of old habits. At that moment, he went on, “we are feverish but also porous, so that the slightest touch makes us quiver to the depths of our being.” So French, I thought at the time. So overwrought.
But now I’m driving through the poorest, least-populated region of a Central American country. In these forests are indigenous tribes that don’t welcome visitors. Poisonous snakes and insects. Poisonous trees. Usually I’m insulated from unpredictability (or at least I imagine I am); here, at the edge of the jungle, I don’t have even the illusion of control.
The kids are listening to their Walkmans, staring out the window. I know they’d rather be back at the beach, but I’m glad they’re not complaining. I’m still thinking about Camus. I’m thinking: he died on a drizzly afternoon when his car skidded into a tree.
My daughter Mara takes off her earphones and leans toward me.
Why did we get a flat? she asks.
She isn’t asking me to explain the laws of physics to her. What she means is, Why is this happening to us? I try to come up with an answer, but Norma gets there first.
There is no why, Norma says.
I keep my mouth shut. Her answer seems curt, but I don’t want to argue right now about the nature of reality, one of those loopy arguments we get into every few months. (Of course things happen for a reason, I insist. Every moment is pregnant with meaning. Life reflects back to us our subtlest desires and beliefs. Norma stands her ground: searching for meaning is futile. Life is bigger than any meaning we can assign to it. No, kids, we’re not fighting. This is a discussion.)
A few miles outside Bribri, I stop to offer a man a ride. He’s a black Costa Rican of Jamaican descent who speaks English, but he’s either shy or unfriendly; he doesn’t seem interested in conversation. I ask about the tire. Yes, he says, he thinks there’s a man in Bribri who fixes tires. Thank God, I exclaim, then notice the look of amusement on his face. Another gringo, he’s probably thinking, making a big deal over nothing. These Americans: so much money and so little common sense.
When we drop him off, he points us to a small building near the center of town. Beside it is a shed strewn with old tires. No chickens. The front door of the building is slightly ajar. I call out a greeting. No answer.
I get out, walk to the door, stick my head inside. It takes a few seconds for my eyes to adjust to the dim light. Then I notice a man sitting beside a window, reading a book. He’s slender and middle aged, with a sun-weathered face, short hair, a neatly trimmed mustache. He nods, takes a pencil stub from behind his ear, marks his place in the book. He stands up.
He says something in Spanish, too quickly for me to understand, then walks outside with me. He lifts the tire out of the trunk, examines it, rolls it back to the shed.
I’m surprised at how much pleasure I take in watching him work: he’s so calm and deliberate. When he finishes using a tool, he sets it down carefully. When he lowers the inner tube into a rusty tub to check for air bubbles, all his attention is focused on this single act. I could be watching a potter bringing his clay into center. Or a pianist, poised over the perfect chord.
How strange: in this ramshackle shed — the last place in Costa Rica I should want to be — I feel calm, too, calmer than I have all week. I don’t know why we got the flat. I don’t know why this man is saving us or what he’s saving us from. Maybe it doesn’t matter.
I close my eyes, grateful we’re safe. But I’m weary, too. Of being on vacation. Of trying to control my children’s moods, my wife’s thinking, Costa Rica’s gross national product. Why is it so hard for me to trust life? Why this constant fretting?
I look at Norma and Mara and Sara and Jaime waiting in the car; at this dignified man, bent to his task with such beautiful steadiness and concentration. Did I need to be reminded that God is everywhere? No more available at one moment than another? Not any more available when everything is “right”? Not any less available when I’m a frightened traveler in a foreign country, afraid of being robbed, or stranded, or bitten by the wrong kind of mosquito?
It starts to rain. I listen to the thrumming on the tin roof: a language everyone understands. Outside, a man on horseback rides past. Otherwise it’s quiet in Bribri: no bustling market, no buses or taxis. No tourist attractions. No tourists, except us.
Everything seems luminous, timeless, yet perfectly ordinary: the old tires, the man’s stained shirt and baggy pants, his dark face, his wrinkled neck. I feel as if I’ve jumped from a burning building and hit the ground, only to look back and realize the building wasn’t burning.
If only for this moment, I’m not trying to change anything. I’m not on vacation. I’m here.
The man finishes with the tire, puts it in the trunk, returns to the shed. I want to pay him more than the small sum he asks — two hundred colones, less than two dollars — but fear I’ll offend him. I want to find out what book he’s reading, but my Spanish isn’t good enough.
I press the money into his hand and head toward the car. The rain hits my face, cool and welcome.