My friend Sara and I didn’t do a ton of pre-trip research on Costa Rica after she suggested it as a vacation, but we discussed getting pills for typhoid or a yellow fever vaccine. Sure, we didn’t think of it until a few days before the trip, at which point it was too late for either measure, but at least we looked into it enough to know that it was too late. Luckily, both threats were pretty minor; we’d only be venturing into yellow fever territory when we went whitewater rafting, and I was more concerned about encountering water snakes and whirlpools than being bit by an infected mosquito. I mean, we had to wear a helmet, so you know it was rough.
In addition to the whitewater rafting, we planned to hike the Arenal volcano, zip-line through the jungle, adn go sea kayaking along the coast. The trip Sara suggested was a Living Social deal, so in addition to the natural dangers, I initially had the added worry we’d end up kidnapped and forced into torture porn before being killed for sport or sold into slavery. Since Costa Rica isn’t an Eastern European country, we weren’t staying in a hostel, and our booking agent sent us a legitimate (and verifiable) travel itinerary, I then felt like the risk of that happening was minor as well.
We didn’t end up kidnapped and tortured, in case you were wondering.
The whitewater rafting had moments of wildness, but there were also times when we had to do significant paddling to make forward progress, and in one stretch we actually got out and swam around. The water was calm and cool. I felt especially buoyant. I only remembered afterward (after I’d swished a tumbler’s worth of it through my mouth) that it probably wasn’t a good idea to swallow any of the river, accidentally or otherwise.
The worst thing that happened was Sara stepped wrong during our lunch stop, right before we went swimming, shredding her foot on some rocks and ending up with what she called a bloody stump of a toe. She only informed me of this after we got into the water and the guide made a joke about piranhas. At least, we think it was a joke. Had we done our research, we might have known that piranhas live in South (not Central) America.
The volcano hike also turned out tamer than I imagined; even though Arenal is active (it erupted the year before we went), it’s not exactly spewing lava on a daily basis, and I barely noticed the incline leading up to the point on the base past which we weren’t allowed to venture. As we walked through a wooded path toward what ended up to be a pile of pumice, our guide pointed out a viper coiled on the edge of a tree branch, wet-looking and plump like those swirls of shaving gel in the commercials. I thought of razors as I crossed underneath.
Okay, so I also snapped a photo.
We made it to the zip-line before we felt any real danger. After watching a safety demonstration, strapping ourselves into the harness, and donning yet another helmet, Sara and I climbed the steps for the first platform. We had neared the top when Sara confessed her fear of heights.
“I hope I don’t freak out,” she told me, clutching my arm in what I hoped was excitement rather than terror or a desire to kill me for making her go on this. Sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference with Sara; she’s been known to shake my arm violently to show me how much she likes me and/or whatever we’re doing. Or so she says.
The first platform was the highest in altitude but the closest to the ground, so I, too, hoped she didn’t freak out because it was only going to get worse.
“Wait,” I said, “weren’t you the one who signed us up for this?”
“Yeah, I know,” she said. “I was hoping it wouldn’t be an issue. I’m sure it’ll be fine…maybe.”
“Just don’t look down,” I told her.
She didn’t freak out. The view was breathtaking, and the two of us even ended up swinging out over a gorge (no hands!) and tilting backwards on one of the runs to ride upside-down.
No one ever told us about the sunsets.
Sara and I are both from Wisconsin; we met working for the City of New York and have spent most of our lives between Midwest and East Coast, at or near the 45th parallel north, where the sunsets vary greatly. There are days in December and January when you only see the sun on the margins of your workday, and there are lingering twilights in June where the daylight finally fades close to ten p.m.
One of the first things we noticed about Costa Rica was that the sun set at seven every day, and because it’s so much closer to the equator there was no lingering twilight, no time of day known as “dusk.” When the sun went down, the lights went out.
The final item on our pre-planned itinerary was sea kayaking around the resort where we were staying. The weather affected this one more than the others, and we switched some of our activities around to accommodate for this. When it was rescheduled for the second time, they told us that we’d have to go river kayaking instead, and we decided to fill the vacancy in our schedule with an off-the-itinerary surfing lesson.
The water had been choppy on a few of the days of our trip, but when we sat on the edge of the sand waiting for our surfing instructor, the sea before us roiled and churned. No one else was surfing.
“He’s not going to have us go out on that, right?” Sara asked me.
“Nah,” I said with confidence. “It’s way too rough. Besides, I’m a little worried about sharks.”
The conditions were like those in the set-up for every episode of Shark Week I’ve ever seen. In addition to the rough water, the sky was overcast and the visibility was poor. And, again, no one else was surfing, not even the regulars Sara and I had watched each day from our balcony.
Robbie, our surf instructor, came striding across the sand, two surfboards balanced on his head, a pair of long-sleeved surf shirts draped over his shoulder, which was odd because he wasn’t going to have us go out on that, right?
“Ready for your lesson,” he said, not so much a question as a confirmation.
“Isn’t the water a little rough?” Sara asked.
“What about sharks?’ I said.
He waved me off, saying, “There are no sharks. Now, lie down on the board and practice pushing up.”
Sara and I managed to get up several times with varying success. We also fell — with great success — alternately getting throttled by the waves and clobbered by the board. Each time I paddled out and wobbled in, I kept as much of myself out of the water as I could, still imagining a great white or bull shark circling just beneath the surface.
No one told us about the dogs.
We decided to take a walk that evening to the point at the end of the beach. The sun set as we made our way down the strip of sand, passing resorts and beach houses along the way, and by the time we reached a point at the end of the beach it was completely dark on all sides: the torches from our far-away hotel and a few pinhole stars the only sources of light for what seemed like miles. There were four or five hulking black dogs snuffling and scampering around the surf, but they paid no attention to us as we trudged through the sand.
“I can’t believe our vacation is almost over,” Sara said. The end-of-vacation anxiety was starting to set in.
As we walked back along the way we came, we must have startled the dogs, because out of nowhere they charged us, snarling and growling. Their deep-throated barks vibrated the night, their teeth visible even in the low light. Sara and I froze.
I had a dog in my teens and have always felt an affinity for them, even from birth. My mom will tell you about the time she took me, then two, on a walk in our neighborhood and we passed a house where a Doberman had just birthed a litter, her nipples still swollen, belly stretched. My mom worried that I would provoke an attack, but when I toddled over and shrieked, “Puppy!” the Doberman just sniffed me and walked away.
I knew before our trip that Sara is afraid of dogs, having been bitten by a yippy one when she was young. In those seconds when we froze I thought of that and about how we had already had so many near misses on the trip, only to have it come to this.
In those few seconds, I also remembered what I had heard about dogs and sensing fear and how they back down to strong signs of dominance. We weren’t doing well in the fear department, nor had we asserted a lot of dominance. As what I assumed was the alpha dog came closer, I looked around for something with which I could protect us, finding a stick the size of a relay baton.
I started yelling incoherently and waving the stick at the dog, summoning every ounce of aggression I possess, which isn’t much. It’s possible I growled. From the look she gave me, Sara went from being afraid of the dogs to being more than a little worried about me.
But, somehow, the yelling worked. The dogs backed away, though still barking and snarling.
When we recounted this story to our river kayaking guide the next day, he explained that those dogs probably weren’t wild, like I imagined, roving the streets in a feral pack. Instead, he told us, local homeowners keep them around as a sort of informal security.
“They’re kind of pets,” he said. “They are not stray but part of the neighborhood.”
“But they can be scary,” he added, perhaps realizing we viewed pets differently.
“Yeah, we’ve had quite a week,” I said, relaying the surfing story and laughing at my naïveté. “I can’t believe I was so worried about sharks.”
Our guide didn’t laugh with me, though. He told us about a teen who died from a shark attack a mile or two from our hotel earlier that week, after looking at me very seriously and saying, “It’s the ocean: of course there are sharks.”
Sarah Elizabeth Turner received an M.F.A. in creative writing from Hamline University. Before that, she spent four years investigating complaints against the police in New York City, three months working at the Mall of America (don’t ask), and three years trying to re-adjust to the Midwest. Her writing has appeared on Sleet, She Bear Lit, Versus, and the Brevity blog. She once got invited to a NASA launch. Sarah writes mostly creative nonfiction and can be found blogging on Sarah in Small Doses or performing improv online and in person.