The collards needed immediate attention. They were bolting from every leaf, wee tender florets sprouting like tiny broccoli heads, and I did not want to lose my patch like last year. Thus my Sunday afternoon reeked of urban homesteading and pungent brassica.
I spread the collard stalks out on the dinning room table, maybe 8 stalks in all (a serious a mess of greens), turned on some music and settled in to prep my produce for freezing, the dogs silently begging at my feet. I'd decided on Gorillaz - Demon Days album, with the band's nod to Hip Hop and upbeat melodies, the music reminds me of tropical surroundings. As I cut the leaves one by one from the stalk with a kitchen knife, then stacked a few leaves at a time, slicing out the thick stem, stacking again and making clean, wide ribbons, my mind began to wander. The thick, broad collard leaves became tobacco leaves I was preparing for Cuban cigars, a thin layer of sweat glistening on my skin, a fan overhead, a palm tree outside the open window where Ibrahim Ferrer and friends played on the stoop. The daydream slipped into personal history and I fell into a memory of Costa Rica and a secluded beach I'd spent two days looking for.
A few years ago, after returning from Argentina without aim and having been offered room and board to stay on in Alabama, to write, I'd zipped down the following winter to visit a friend in San Jose. We'd planned a trip to the coast but he was unable to get away from work, so I went alone. I picked a beach on the Pacific, found a hotel I could afford, bought a plane ticket and went. My friend had been to this town before and suggested a private nude beach that could be found only by a winding path through the woods, or over a cluster of black rocks exposed only at low tide.
With vague directions as to where the road to la playa privido off the main road sat, I set out my first morning to find it. Asking a few locals turned up nothing more substantial than what I knew already (not much) and riding the bus until a stopping point 'felt right' took me to the end of the downhill, switchback road and the main beach, wide and busy with tourists and restaurants and local vendors selling fresh fruit, coconut water, beach clothing and cooked food. I embarrassed myself at an outdoor cafe. When offered a table I wanted to say, "just one," as we do in the states, but uttered "estoy solo", which means "I'm single". The waiter responded sweetly, made a joke and we laughed together.
On my second day in town I took again the bus, jumping off by a cafe with incredibly delicious, fresh fruit smoothies, across from a gravel road that looked like what had been described to me, though no one in the cafe could confirm my hunch. I hiked until the gravel path became desolate, no hotels, no homes and the brush grew up on both sides, then turned around, hiked back uphill and took the main thoroughfare toward the tourist beach again, mistaking the distance I'd traveled by bus for being much shorter than it was. The two lane road was narrow with a narrower shoulder. Buses passed each other on sharp curves, leaning outward with gravity, giving a precarious air to those on-board and a diminutive importance to small me balancing the line of dusty bank between road and mountainside. So when a couple in a jeep offered me a ride, I took it. I mentioned the private beach to them but they didn't know what I was talking about. Nor did they speak much english. We passed the popular beach with all the restaurants and drove through a wooded area, beyond rough hewn gates and into the parking lot of a national park I'd read about in my Costa Rica guide book. I spent the afternoon wandering the park, walking alongside monkeys swinging in low trees, stepping over a fallen log covered by Army ants, the kind that take over homes and eat everything in sight, furniture especially, and dipping into beach coves that flashed between the woods, the clear turquoise ocean like a mirage.
On the third day I tried again the gravelly road, certain my secret beach was somewhere at the end. Passing the overgrown, abandoned seeming stretch of curving road, I discovered a building site for a string of luxury condominiums, the structure nearly finished. I asked the guard standing nearby about the beach. He didn't know but asked two of the construction workers who did. Finally, someone knew what I was looking for.
One of them led me a few feet away and pointed to a hole in the trees, trash scattered around and the end unseen because what looked like a trail twisted and looped into shady darkness. But my danger meter was still off balance from being hit in the face and robbed in Argentina over a year before and I got too scared to pursue it. Instead I turned around, glancing over my shoulder, the adrenalin pumping too strongly as I marched back up the road. Halfway up were two white men traveling down, obvious tourists, and as it turned out, one American, one Australian. They were headed for the private nude beach, though no longer nude, they said. A hotel had been built above it and now used it as it's own private beach, but we could still get there and in fact they went often and yes I could follow them. They'd been going to that beach for over ten years. We took the wooded path the construction worker had pointed out, hiking a steep decline, navigating brush and tree roots, until the most glorious piece of private cove I had ever imagined finally revealed itself to me.
The temperature was perfect, the waves wonderfully picturesque, and a local man selling cold beer and his wife's homemade ceviche, both cheap and delicious, kept me in euphoric supply. On my iPod I listened to Gorillaz, songs like "All Alone" and "Demon Days" speaking to me about sunshine in my heart, new starts and changing paths. When the tide settled and the beach broadened I climbed the rocky enclave separating the private stretch from a longer stretch that eventually became the primary tourist beach where buses stopped before returning back to town.
I've traveled alone many times in many foreign countries. The emotions are always the same - intense excitement for the new, the never before seen, with a promise of inspiration, and the awkward loneliness inherent in taking solitary public meals, of seeking shelter and navigating maps, uncompromised, unaided. I feel trapped between exaltation and exhaustion, with just me and my head, the chance I'll learn something about myself is rich and likely. It's an opportunity to discover how strong I am, how resourceful, how independent, how willing to confront myself when there are no others to distract.
It's is a little like writing fiction.
The desire to go, to start, is insistent, like an itchy mosquito bite. The process is both exhilarting - new sentences, syntax and word play, plot twists and the subtext of meaning, the possibilty of learning something more about me - and terrifying, for much of the same reasons. Will I make it home? Will I be robbed or cheated? Will this story shake out and come together, a complete, seemless, intoxicating piece? Will it be effective? Who will I be when it's all over?
On Saturday I recieved a rejection letter from a well established magazine, one of my favorite magazines, and the one where I'd most like to published. At the bottom of the typed, standard format rejection was a hand written note.
Amy, please try us again. Thanks!
This means something. It means keep writing. It means write another story immediately, because my skills are bolting and if I don't harvest them I'll lose them. It means I have to cultivate my literary garden, get out the hoe, put aside the fear and learn something about myself. A simple note from a stranger feels like encouragement, like a ride, like directions toward my destination and that perfect beach.
And it poses a question.
How tough am I?