Wednesday, August 17, 2005

How my marriage was saved

Somewhat over 20 years ago, Kay and I were at the house of a friend who made jewelry. I was admiring a box of polished fire agates, little brown rocks which seemed unlikely candidates for lapidary use until you looked at them closely and saw their complex iridescence. That iridescence, kind of like that of an opal, is caused by thin, wavy films of iron oxide inside the chalcedony.
"You like them?" Kay asked, "Which one do you like best?" I pointed out one that was particularly nice. The conversation turned to other things.

Nearly a year later, for my birthday, Kay gave me a small box which contained a gold ring with this stone in it. It fit a finger on my right hand. It was a nice gift. And Kay attached a special significance to it, as it turned out.

That summer, we went to Costa Rica, and spent some time at Manuel Antonio beach and park on the Pacific. Manuel Antonio was beautiful then, and I hope it still is--like pictures I have seen of Tahiti. Jungle covered steep cliffs fall down to the ocean. Crescents of sandy beach lie between rocky sea-bound points of black stone.

The big mile-long beach right outside the park was called Playa Espadilla. That was where we stayed; at high tide the waves played out in a thin hissing sheet right at our cabin door and at low tide we were 200 feet from the water. The low tide was better for Eve; the waves did not break as steeply and the undertow was not as strong. The beach drew a lot of surfers. The water at Espadilla was considered dangerous. Every once in a while you would see a riderless surfboard suddenly pop into the air above the thrashing form of a surfer now being tumbled in the heavy sucking roll of the mighty wave that had dismounted him.

To get to the small national park you had to wade across a stream and pay a few cents to a guy sitting in a cane hut and you walked along a path and after a while you would come out of the jungle onto the beach. The two beaches inside the park were each about a quarter mile long. The first one is called Espadilla del Sur. You could take a short jungle walk behind a forested headland called Punta Catedral, Cathedral Point, to get to the next beach, Playa Manuel Antonio, which must certainly be one of the most beautiful beaches anywhere in the world.

White-face monkeys would down out of the trees to steal from your picnic basket. A couple of park rangers dressed like commandos stood around with old M-1 rifles, guarding the pretty girls against--something. I am not sure what. I found out later that the rangers lived in the park. I went on a walk on a remote trail back in the jungle and ran across one who was carrying a dead sloth he had shot home to his dinner table. He was surprised to see me. "Buenas tardes!" I said, cheerfully. He scowled and did not reply.

There were supposedly other beaches farther on in the park; the next one down was if I remember correctly called Playa Puerto Escondido. Escondido means hidden, and it turned out it was indeed hidden, being completely inaccessible except at absolute low tide--at least it was if we found the right place.

Kay and my stepdaughter Anna and my daughter Eve and I had set out to find it and were soon trekking a poorly marked and badly maintained path though a dense rain-forest, up and down steep slopes, with mysterious twitterings and chattering noises going on the the high jungle canopy above us, and occasionally we heard the sound of waves crashing invisibly below as our trail came close to the ocean cliffs. The path was wet and slippery and the mud would occasionally capture and retain someone's sneaker. Monkeys threw mango rinds at us and jeered. After 40 minutes of walking and climbing we got to what we thought was the cove, descending to the sea by handholds down a slick muddy slope. The cove supposedly had good snorkeling because a reef blocked the entrance against the waves.

What we found was that most of this cove consisted of sheer walls of rock coming right down to the crashing sea, a sea like you would find on the Oregon coast, with great booming waves exploding on slick black boulders like a slow-motion firework display. But you could see some beach sand exposed in places, and you could see how there would be more beach at dead low tide. The trail came down to a little cobblestoned inlet which was still blocked from the rest of the cove by the tide.

I tried to climb over some rocks to see if we could get out of our inlet to the sandy area that was nearest, but I was caught by some incoming combers and I got washed off the rocks. My ring hooked on a sharp outcrop and I felt it slip off my finger. It was gone in the crashing surf.

The ring was important.

Kay looked heartbroken. Also, she believed in omens, and she had for whatever reason come to believe that the ring would stay on my finger as long as we were married. So, not only had I lost the ring, our marriage was in peril.

I felt terrible.

So Anna, who had snorkeling equipment, took her face mask and searched among the rocks with the waves occasionally surging over her, while I held on to her feet to keep her from being carried away. It seemed like a hopeless quest. But we kept looking. Anna scrabbled among the rocks, occasionally putting up her head to clear her mask and snorkel. Minutes went by. As I was about to give up, and face up to this sudden danger to our marriage, Anna found it! She found the ring after maybe 10 minutes of feeling around among the small dark crabs who scuttled in the cracks in the rock.

So our marriage was saved. Kay now looked elated. And, you bet, I was pleased.

We went back to the dry shingle of cobblestones and had a picnic of wholewheat bread and locally made jam. By that time we were famished. I think it was one of the best meals we had in all of Costa Rica. We drank our extra-sweet Central American Coca Colas and packed up and started back. All this time we had not seen a living soul.

We spent a few days swimming and beachcombing and shell-collecting at Manuel Antonio. We would eat breakfast at a little outdoor restaurant across from our cabaƱas and watch the chestnut-billed toucans do some kind of a mating or rivalry dance on a nearby tree. Then I would go walking along the road or into the park birdwatching and Kay and Anna and Eve would collect shells and swim. At the time, it was cheap and primitive. (Given the nature of progress, I fear it is neither, now.)
It would rain in the afternoon. The pelicans would slug low over the wave-tops, flapping and soaring slowly. The parrots would come screaming out of a tree, circle wildly, and flood densely and loudly into another tree. It was cool. There were not too many mosquitos. It would rain all night and it was good to swim in the rain and darkness.

We always meant to go back, but we never did.

Sunset, Playa Espadilla, Costa Rica, 1989
View from our room on the beach looking toward Manuel Antonio National Park

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