The thick cover of the rainforest lining the Caribbean coast disguises the paradise that lies just a few meters away from us. The tiny crabs scatter away beneath our every footstep, quickly burrowing themselves away in their tiny underground world, begging me to question what must be so great down there when there is so much to be seen here under the sun. That all-too-familiar doubt begins to sink in as we sweep our way around palm trees and follow nothing more than the sound of the crashing waves as our guide to the beach that we so desperately seek. That doubt that creeps in as you navigate unfamiliar terrain and begin to waffle between staying the course and turning back.
Have we gone too far?
Did the guide at the hotel really know what he was talking about?
Maybe we should just head back.
However, my instincts won’t let up and I can’t stand to face throwing in the towel, especially not after I’ve been unofficially elected leader of the group. Our hodgepodge group of tourists-turned-friends has rallied behind me as I’m often first to take the initiative on group decisions and, not to mention, I carry a noticeable advantage in Spanish-speaking ability, which has gotten us out of a bind or two.
Today we’ve headed off the beaten path to find a more secluded, less touristy beach, and the cool, salty rush of the Caribbean waves washing over my face better come soon, lest the perpetual sweat dripping from my brow sting me blind and leave me deserted here in this jungle forever. Alas, as I wipe the sweat from my eyes, for what feels like the one-millionth time, I catch a glimpse of our proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Open beach and sea that seem to stretch forever as if the world weren’t round, but rather a flat plane stretching out infinitely in all directions.
Before I make a run for the cool waters I mask my excitement and instead gauge the reactions of those in my group – after all, if I were ever to have a mirage, this would be it. The yelps of excitement from my friends confirms what I desperately wish to be true, as if the hot sand scorching now scorching my feet was not indication enough: we have arrived at our destination.
We shed all our worries, doubts, and concerns just as easily as our shirts and flip-flops, and make the otherwise desolate beach home. If it weren’t for the very real feeling of sand between my toes I’m sure I’d be convinced that I were merely staring at an airbrushed travel brochure rather than basking in the perfect Costa Rican sun.
The lulling waves and feeling of complete isolation set in too deep and I completely let my guard down, allowing my personal tropical paradise to seep deep into my bones. My friends frolic along the coast, occasionally wading waist deep among the waves, and likewise carry not a single worry among them. They conjure me into the crystal waters with promises of a quick rinse-off before heading back into town for lunch. And just like that we discover that we are not alone.
“Doug, where did you move our bags?”
“They’re right there by the….” Oh, no.
While traveling in Costa Rica, I had been told about as many times as I had eaten mangos (2,546 times) that you must always be conscious of your belongings. It’s rule numero uno and as simple as it sounds.
Score – Costa Rican thieves: 1, Doug & friends: 0.
Unbeknownst to us, lurking in the jungle as we acted like we were stranded on our own tropical island, a couple of thieves watched us and patiently bided their time, waiting for the perfect moment to strike. When they finally did we found ourselves a few iPods, digital cameras, wallets, and personal belongings short.
All eyes turn to me as if to say, “what now?!” but all I can think to do is panic and wonder how I’m supposed to get home with no money and with my bus ticket long gone in the bag that was just stolen from me. We make a mad dash for the jungle and quickly retrace our steps back into town where our hotel, and hopefully assistance, awaits us.
Maybe we’ll catch up to the thieves. Maybe they just took the money and ditched the rest of our belongings in the jungle for us to find. Maybe the staff at the hotel can help us contact the police and resolve this. Wait, the hotel. How are we even going to get back into the hotel when the key was stolen along with, what feels like, the rest of my life and dignity?
And just as a plethora of unanswerable questions storm my mind, a teenage boy – more appropriately seen carrying a surfboard towards the tide than wielding a large stick in the jungle – appears. He hurriedly asks me if we had just been robbed.
Of course we had, but what did he know about it. He beckons us with his stick to follow him and we take off on a brisk jog through the jungle that had just one hour ago seemed so labyrinthine. In about 2.5 seconds we find our teenage savior’s band of vigilantes circled around two captives whom they have bound with rope and given a couple of black eyes to.
Our ringleader moves stage left, high-steps through some tall grass, and lifts a couple of bags above his head with his staff. No faster than he can ask us if these are our belongings, we’ve claimed the bags and confirmed that everything is there. Our bags have been returned to their rightful owners and with nothing more than the cool nod of his head our ringleader authorizes another lesson taught to our story’s criminals. His band of vigilantes delivers a few swift punches, kicks, and wallops with their sticks as if to say, “Don’t ever do this again.”
Our Lord-of-the-Flies band of youth instructs us to follow them to town where they deliver the criminals to the “real authorities” (police) and where we file an official report. Between photos ops with our local band of heroes I steal a word or two with the ringleader, asking him how and why he helped us.
“Well, these kids come in from other towns and rob tourists, which gives us a bad name and hurts our local economy. Plus, the other day someone broke right into my house and stole my laptop – it feels good to get a bit of justice, whether it’s for you or if it’s for me.”
Well, mi amigo, justice has indeed been served today. Gracias!