Playa Garza, Ticos, Baby Tylenol, scorpions, hermit crabs, The Testament of Mary, Guanacaste wood, heliconia flowers, deserts, blizzards, love, parenthood & Costa Rica.
Playa Garza, Ticos, Baby Tylenol, scorpions, hermit crabs, The Testament of Mary, Guanacaste wood, heliconia flowers, deserts, blizzards, love, parenthood & Costa Rica.
Everyone around here calls it the pink beach. Aura says it’s because of all the crushed shells and how the sand is cut through with specks of quartz. It creates a kind of high-frequency energy that attracts seekers. It’s hard to get to, she says. You have to hike through a forest of Guanacaste and Ceiba trees, heliconia flowers and wild ginger. The silk floss tree with its thorny trunk lines a steep rocky path toward the ocean. A branch recently fell on a small child and he had to be airlifted to the hospital in San Jose.
Perfect! we say.
She eyes us skeptically and reaches for Freddi’s toe. You have sunscreen?
Babies can’t wear sunscreen until six months.
He’ll rip it off.
Long sleeves then.
I point to the red heat rash on Freddi’s belly, clustering in the fatty folds of his neck and upper thighs.
We’ll find shade, I promise and then we jump into the car before we lose our nerve. I grip Freddi in my lap as we bounce through dusty potholes and turn quickly to avoid the ruts left by the rainy season. When a couple roars past on a motorcycle, kicking up a cloud of dust, I cover Freddi’s mouth and Piotr sighs. His bike is in New Jersey, parked in his mother’s garage until he can convince me that a side-car would be perfect for the baby and me.
If we were in India… he begins, a phrase he often uses when we travel.
We’d all be on a motorcycle, I finish. I look out the window and show Freddi las vacas.
Mooooooo, I say.
Two winters ago, we traveled to Nicaragua to save our relationship. On our last afternoon, we set out for a walk. Wearing nothing but our bathing suits, we carried a small backpack with water, half of a joint, two scarves that could serve as towels or sunshade, and a copy of Colm Toibin’s The Testament of Mary. The sad tenor of Toibin’s voice and the doubts he creates in Mary matched the mood of that vacation. Believing what we want may give us comfort, but it’s not the truth. And what is the true story? Mary’s account suggests that we lie to ourselves too much to ever discover such a thing.
That day years ago, some kind of discovery was in order because, as was usual then, we were arguing about everything. The way Piotr slept in too late, the way I talked too much, the way he wanted to improvise, the way I wanted to plan, the way I was restless to do stuff, the way he preferred to slowly feel out his days. Underneath the bickering, however, was the bigger question that had begun to weigh us down—would we have kids and when? I was 36 and needed to know. He was 40 and still unsure. The anxiety drove us to near constant fighting and, on the verge of breaking up, we did, instead, what we believed we do best. Distracted ourselves with travel. We picked Nicaragua’s San Juan del Sur on a whim when an acquaintance mentioned a sweet yoga studio and a café bookstore with fresh juices. Like many travelers, we need very little to inspire in us enough vision to simply go, but, however new and beautiful and distant this place, we could not escape our load of irritation and disappointment.
Listen, he told us, don’t do anything extreme before the first year is up. Like what? we asked. Like get divorced. You’ll want to, he added, but don’t.
We walked in silence, fearing that our words would open up more layers of dissatisfaction. The sand was hot beneath our feet so we walked in the water, the splashing of our feet the only sound. We rounded several craggy points and traversed slippery rock ledges until we came to the beach. Gasping in a rare moment of mutual delight, we gazed at the white sand shining in a curve around the cove. One small tree with just enough shade beckoned us. There, we spread our scarves and lay down, listening to a breeze clap the leaves together, looking up occasionally at the pale, cloudless sky. When Piotr reached for the knot on my bikini top, I let him tug it until it came undone. Soon, he slipped out of his bathing suit, and we found a moment of release from our thoughts.
Afterward, I propped myself up on an elbow and looked out at the water. Piotr’s fingers followed the freckles on my collarbone, found constellations on my forearms. Maybe this is all we need, he said. A piece of beach, a tree or two, the horizon line. Then we could be happy.
Before I agreed, I imagined a child in the picture. Yes, I said, then we could be happy.
Our love may have confused us, but we couldn’t stop following it. It took us to Mexico and Nicaragua, Jamaica and Aruba, Turkey and Poland. It led us across the country on a motorcycle and through the mountains of British Columbia. We camped with it in the desert and skied with it through a blizzard. We once stood in the Atlantic ocean and tried to toss it away. When that didn’t work, we threw ourselves onto the sand and decided we might as well get married. The constant tide rocked us back and forth until we wound up in each other’s arms.
Later, I told him that having a baby would be easier than the hardest travel he’d done. Easier than his trip through the Himalayas on an Enfield and his month-long trek on the Inca Trail.
He doubted it.
Babies are not as fragile as they seem, I said.
Maybe not, Piotr responded, but what about the parents?
The baby fits into our life, I answered, naïve, yet sure of my parenting philosophy, long before I myself became a parent. We need to travel, so the baby travels, too.
Our friends disagreed. Experienced parents issued caution. Neighbors modeled different plans.
A friend described her baby’s first year: All I wanted to do was stay home and protect her. Another didn’t leave the house for six months, and that was just to collect the mail. One guy at a party—away from his toddlers for the first time in months—could not stop talking about them.
Listen, he told us, don’t do anything extreme before the first year is up.
Like what? we asked.
Like get divorced. You’ll want to, he added, but don’t.
So we should get divorced after the year is up? He laughed, not knowing that with us, that was a reasonable possibility.
In late September, the baby came. Eight pounds, fifteen ounces. Grumpy, sleepy-eyed and covered in a slick of dark hair. A miracle. We called him Frederik. Derived from German, it means peaceful ruler, and we joked that he would harmonize our union.
Then came three months of new parenthood in a six-hundred-square-foot apartment, two emergency trips to the hospital, a brutal Brooklyn winter upon us and a daily soundtrack of bone-rattling construction pile drivers. We were still waiting for the harmony.
Stomp your feet and clap your hands! I sang to Freddi again, everybody ready for a barnyard dance!
Piotr groaned from his well-worn spot on the couch. If we don’t go somewhere soon, he announced, anywhere…
There was no need to finish the sentence.
As in traveling, parenting uncovers vulnerabilities and delusions. You can prepare and imagine as much as you want, but reality is the great revealer. You think, a cross-country motorcycle trip? No problem. Camp wherever it looks pretty? Let’s do it. You think of yourself as tough, adventurous, open to new experiences, but then you realize that straddling a bike for six hours a day destroys your knees and that camping on that bluff means you’ll stay awake all night in howling wind. You soon find you’re someone who desires an ultra padded bike seat or stares longingly at the $69.99-a-night Days Inn with indoor pool and hot tub.
Taking the trip is the only thing that prepares you for the trip. It’s a humbling, necessary process. It’s the same with parenting, except that parenting is less forgiving and, of course, considering the miracle of genetic roulette, it provides more unexpected variables. It’s possible to travel the same route as a previous explorer and have a similar experience. You can even cut short a trip if reality is not matching up to expectation, but as our midwife noted after our first sleepless nights with Freddi, there are no refunds or returns after having a child.
In Costa Rica, the Ticos say pura vida as a hello and goodbye, a gesture of welcome and a sign of gratitude, a form of agreement and an expression of satisfaction. It literally means “pure life” but it can be used in countless ways. When I wrote a friend yesterday to tell him we might be late for a lunch date, he responded, No rush, pura vida. It often borders on the absurd. How are you? Pura vida. I’ll have the fish. Pura vida. Did the iguana on the roof keep you up last night? Pura vida.
It caught on after the main character of a 1956 Mexican movie called Pura Vida used the phrase in characteristically absurd ways. Costa Rica is a largely Catholic country, but pura vida is its spiritual mantra. Let go, it says. Take the good with the bad. It’s alright, even when it’s not.
I believe that the experience of a place has more to do with our state of mind than where we are, but in our case, it was important that we ended up in the land of pura vida. If that phrase was the only souvenir we took back to New York, our trip would have been well worth it.
After the fishermen bring in the day’s catch, people don’t do much in Playa Garza. The surf is better up north in Playa Guiones. The cafes are more crowded down south in Playa Samara. Here, we are told, nothing has changed in decades. Mostly, it’s just teenage girls in cut offs and flip-flops flirting with the checkout guy at the Super Arraya #4. It’s a white bearded gringo asleep in a hammock at the express cevicheria. It’s two men on horseback who drive the cattle from the mountain towards the beach. It’s a family of fifteen building a campfire under a full moon, liters of coke and cans of Imperial in a cooler.
One day, a crowd gathers to watch a skinny whip of a man hold a machete in his teeth and climb a palm tree. After he lowers the clump of coconuts to the ground, he and a few buddies crack them open and guzzle them down, tossing the husks behind them like frat boys on spring break. The crowd disperses. He says to us, pura vida.
You soon find you’re someone who desires an ultra padded bike seat or stares longingly at the $69.99-a-night Days Inn with indoor pool and hot tub.
The breakfast of kings, Piotr responds, and the guy laughs, revealing two more teeth than Freddi.
For the first few weeks we’re staying up the hill at Villa Matisse, the home of an older couple, a Swiss and a Nicaraguan. In the mornings, Aura makes strong coffee and blends melon and ice smoothies. Stefan sits bare-chested at the long dining table made of Guanacaste wood and talks to us of the area’s real estate and development, of turtle poachers and why the local government won’t pave the roads.
But in the end, he says, raising his hairy shoulders in a signature shrug, there are two sides to all things, verdad?
Aura flips her long black ponytail back and forth like a horse twitching her tail and makes faces at
Freddi. Mi cosita! she cries, Que guapito!
Please, they say, stay as long as you want. We’ll find room for you.
People loved to warn us against traveling with a baby. The road dust that could predispose him to asthma. The heat that could cause dehydration. The mosquitoes that could transmit dengue fever. The stingrays that could spike through his foot. The scorpions that hide in the sheets. My pediatrician urged us to stay in a resort.
We don’t travel that way, I said.
What way? She asked. I looked at Freddi, half-naked on the examination table, his skin as sensitive as a moth’s wing.
The safe way, I answered.
So, you travel dangerously?
We don’t look for danger, I said. I mean, not always. Just sometimes? We want to be surprised.
Having a baby isn’t surprising enough?
I laughed because of course it is and of course it isn’t, but how to explain that to someone who equated travel with resorts?
Still, weighted down with warnings, I amassed our gear. Baby Tylenol for teething and infant Benadryl for unforeseen allergic reactions; tea tree oil for sand fly bites and calendula cream for diaper rash; a kid-sized travel tent for nighttime and beach time and a bouncy chair for morning coffee time; nail clippers; thermometer; nasal aspirator and nail file; onesies for three-month-olds and six-month-olds; two sunhats; rattle; flute; two packs of eco friendly diapers; baby wipes; mosquito repellent; spit up cloths; teething toys; baby blankets; dust-blocking bandanas; three baby carriers including a waterproof sling; and four books, including his favorite Barnyard Dance.
Costa Ricans have babies, too, Piotr said, eyeing the luggage like an overworked pack mule that might refuse to carry this load.
I know, I know. I looked away, the adventurer in me feeling ashamed. But check it out! I added. No stroller. No car seat. That’s something, right? Keeping it light!
He grumbled as he hauled our gear to the elevator, perhaps replaying past travel experiences where we carried one small bag each and endured conditions that both tested and thrilled us. Where we jumped blindly into bottomless cenotes and made love on deserted beaches.
Maybe I should not have promised that life with a baby would barely alter our lives. I cringed watching Piotr drag the bags away, hearing my naively confident words ring in my ears, It will be easy! We’re the parents, and he’ll have to fit into our life!
The three of us are naked in the soft light of six a.m, exploring the deserted end of Playa Garza while fisherman on the sea wait for the day’s catch. Later, we will eat the filet de pescado at Soda Tereza where Tereza serves plates of beans and rice and fried plantains from her beachfront kitchen. She will demand to hold the baby as we eat, settling him into her sagging breasts and parading him around to the other diners. Que lindo! The Ticos will say. Que precioso! They will raise their cervezas to us and smile, and we will forget the morning and the doubts it raised about being here. Maybe, we will think, we have underestimated the power of el bebe guapito.
Thanks to Freddi, we are becoming morning people, discovering the pristine nature of that hour—an unwritten page set out before us. Shade from the Manzanilla tree dapples the sand and the occasional shell glints in the morning sun. Freddi’s eyes are wide. Muy curioso, Aura would say. Piotr snuggles him into the crook of his right arm, and he becomes all flesh and soft, white skin. I follow behind, thinking how someday Freddi might be taller than Piotr or just as hairy. How he will become a man, traveling the world on his own.
There is trash on the beach, but not much. A mangled flip-flop. Wave-bitten boogie board. Plastic bucket. Trapped inside the bucket are hundreds of hermit crabs. Piotr leans close to show Freddi. He tells him that they carry their houses on their backs, the ultimate gypsies of the animal kingdom.
They can sleep anywhere, live anywhere, Piotr says. You can be that free when you grow up.
She will demand to hold the baby as we eat, settling him into her sagging breasts and parading him around to the other diners.
Piotr holds one in his hand, remaining still until the crab uncurls from his quarters, his beady eyes as curioso as Freddi’s.
Pura vida, Piotr says bringing it closer so Freddi can see in detail the marvel of life.
The attack is so sudden and Freddi so surprised that at first we laugh. But Freddi’s silence is disturbing, that open-mouthed, breathless pause before a piercing scream of agony. The crab latched onto his finger and was not letting go. We pull hard, but the crab is strong and his claw cuts into Freddi’s finger.
Later, when Freddi has been nursed to sleep and his finger stops bleeding, Piotr describes how he had been ready to take the crab in his mouth and crunch him to death with his teeth. I, on the other hand, had been paralyzed, standing there naked with milk leaking from my breasts.
The sun rises above the point and the day begins. Shifting the blanket over Freddi’s eyes I say, It’s harder than I thought. Piotr doesn’t ask to what I’m referring—traveling with a baby? Parenting? Trying to protect our son? He wraps a towel around us, unable to do much more than that.
W e came for the surprise of travel, but surprise doesn’t always work with parenthood. We don’t wake up slowly and sip coffee in bed. We don’t make love in the heat of the morning. We can’t swim together in the ocean, or camp out on the beach between ten and four. We don’t go to dinner after six-thirty unless we want a fussy baby. We don’t hit the road to follow a travel tip—like when we heard about ta kite surfing school on Lake Arenal or great Calypso music on the Caribbean coast. We give up the idea of exploring a tree-house community since kids under 12 are not welcome. We toy with visiting Malacriazna, the deadliest rodeo bull in Costa Rica, but our hearts are not in it. After a month in Costa Rica, we long for the lightness of the past—albeit selectively so, considering the tension that travel occasionally created for us.
What we’ve lost has been made up for in Freddi’s simple enthusiasms: how he kicks his legs gleefully at the sound of the ocean and loves the stray dogs who follow us on our morning beach walk; how he wakes up happy, charmed by the tropical light streaming through the wooden shutters and the shadows of palms dancing on the white walls; how his babbling is as new and exotic as the birdsong outside; how his body is in a constant state of discovery, mirroring the baby howler monkeys that follow their mamas across the tree tops.
As if the lush growth here is contagious, Freddi’s first two teeth burst through his gums our second week in Costa Rica. The following month he learns to roll over, hold an object, sit up. Maybe he would have developed at the same rate if we stayed in Brooklyn, but that seems impossible. Removing him from the brittle, cramped space of the city in winter feels like one thing we’ve done right.
We are also evolving, perhaps. Though maybe we will only know how or in what way in retrospect—when Freddi is grown and we can travel again on our own. Perhaps we’ll be like those older couples we keep running into who look longingly at us as we bounce Freddi around over lunch, take turns eating and picking up whatever he has dropped on the floor.
I swore I’d never say this to anyone, but enjoy it, one woman said. It all goes so fast.
We nod. We smile. But later we remark how quickly these self-appointed guides have forgotten how it all felt in the moment. If preparing for the future as a traveler or a parent is a delusional, however comforting, exercise, then the past is even more of a fiction.
Just the other day we met a Spanish couple in their thirties who were impressed that we were traveling with a baby. We want to have one soon, the woman explained. But we love to travel, the man added. Is it very disruptive?
It’s not so hard, I instantly said. Sure, you’re a little tied down, but it’s totally possible.
Piotr looked at me like we’d never met.
Do it! I told them emphatically. You’ll hate it, but you’ll adjust. What else are you going to do? Stay home?
We all laughed. There couldn’t be a more ridiculous suggestion than that.
W e couldn’t see the cenote from where we stood. The man beckoned us closer.
Vengas, he said, pointing. Es aqui.
Inching forward, we saw the shadow of a hole.
It’s just a dirty well, Piotr whispered. Nothing but a black hole.
This was a few years ago, on our first trip together in Mexico. We were still getting to know each other, and there is nothing like traveling to either speed up or quell intimacy.
A handwritten sign had promised the best swimming experience in Mexico. Five dollars, it read, to blow your mind.
We didn’t need to talk about it. We gave the man our money and followed him down a trail, past a pen of rabbits and a rusty swing set into a clearing. When a small boy appeared behind us, the man sent him back.
I’d never seen a cenote in real life, but I had studied pictures. Underground caverns of clear blue water and domed, rocky roofs. Sunlight streamed down in shafts so soft it all looked like a dream.
Our guide undressed and, standing naked before us, smiled. His skin was tan and lean.
Tu tambien, he invited. Es mejor.
It turned out we should strip too, that it would be better that way.
I bet it would, Piotr muttered, moving toward me.
Then the man raised his arms above his head, stepped into the hole and disappeared. Maybe there was a splash. Maybe not. I took my clothes off and leapt. The cave was dark, but there was enough light to see Piotr’s body fall, following me down the narrow opening. The water caught us, refreshing and cool, if a little shocking, and we swam toward each other, calling out, our voices bouncing around the dome and scaring bats from their roost.
It’s like a church beneath the earth, I whispered.
Or a beautiful grave, Piotr said.
We stayed all afternoon, swimming through caverns, marveling at a secret world. Later, Piotr told me how scared and impressed he was when I jumped. It was that evocative combination, he said, that steeled his love.
W e bump through town at ten miles an hour on our way to the pink beach, slowing more for a dog meandering down the middle of the road. Freddi whines in my arms, trying to avoid the sun coming through the window. I wrap him in a scarf and nurse him. I’m thinking about dehydration and sun poisoning. Piotr’s worried I’ll give him heat stroke.
Relax, I say.
You relax, he says.
We laugh before it gets tense. It’s eighty-five degrees and with the smell of burning leaves and trash in the air. I associate the smell with my favorite places around the world. It signals that we are here rather than there, and isn’t that something to feel good about?
We park the car and gather scarves, baby tent, towels, blanket, water and a book to read aloud, like we used to on the beach. It’s Lolita this time. Lolita. Love of my life, fire of my loins. We needed titillation on this trip. We needed the illicit fantasy, the perverse behavior. We needed to remember how dangerous love can be.
The trail is easier than we thought. We are relieved and disappointed, but the beach is perfect: all white sand, blue water and gentle waves. There’s no sign of rose quartz, but I hope the vibration will be powerful enough to reset our energy.
We lay down under the crown of a Guanacaste tree, dropping clothes and towels near a pile of driftwood. Freddi waves his arms as we near the water and opens his mouth wide as the ocean rolls over his toes.
Piotr goes for a walk, and I decide to test out a new sling. Whipping the fabric off the ground, I wrap Freddi in it like a delicate gift, attaching him to my body, careful to cover as much of his skin as possible. Just as I’m tying the ends beneath his legs, a sting runs from my ring finger to my forearm. I scream so loud that Freddi blinks uncontrollably, as if the sound actually hit him in the face. I drop the sling and see the scorpion. He clings stubbornly to the fabric as it falls around my legs, and I shriek again, feeling the pain in my finger and fearing that it will attack again—either my leg or Freddi’s.
What was I thinking coming here with a baby? I am angry and sickened by how close the scorpion came to stinging Freddi. The warnings rush back. I am selfish and naïve, unfit to be a parent. Piotr and I will never travel again after this. My carelessness will be the end of our adventures and probably our relationship. Or else it will be all boring resorts and extended family vacations and he’ll remind me forever of my stupid promise about how easy this would be.
When Piotr returns, he is as wild-haired and blissful as Adam before the fall. I wave my hand at him.
There’s always a snake in the garden! I call out.
What? He asks.
In a garden?
Why did we come here? I ask.
He looks around, confused. I point to the insect, still poised to sting.
Piotr inspects it and whistles in appreciation. Five inches long and the color of dark caramel, the scorpion is as beautiful as he is menacing.
Pu -ra vi-da, Piotr says slowly, drawing out the words.
But it’s bad! I say, shaking out my finger for dramatic effect. He kisses it and drapes his arm around Freddi and me. There is a look of fear and relief, surprise and admiration on his face. I think it means that we’ve arrived.
We’ll take our thrills where we can find them. Maybe by the end of the month we’ll exchange the car for a motorcycle, sit Freddi between us and wrap our faces in bandanas. Maybe we’ll pay a visit to Malacrianza. His rodeo days are over now. We could still see him, though, just a tired old bull, grazing through a field passing the time.
Sara Beck is a writer, teacher, and editor living in Brooklyn, New York. Her journalism has appeared in The New York Times and her fiction is forthcoming in The Normal School.
Photos by Piotr Redlinski