As a young man my heroes proved their courage by welcoming and taking on great risk. I am amazed at how my heroes have changed over time.
In a few days, Susan and I will fly to the Osa Peninsula and the rainforest of southwestern Costa Rica. This will be the first trip there for Susan, but for me it will be a reunion with a place where I experienced real fear for the first time in my life.
In the late 1980s, I decided to go to Costa Rica to find the deepest rainforest I could find. I wanted an adventure and to be left alone.
I flew to San Jose, spent the night and got a little plane to fly me to a grass runway to be transported by a crazy American expat in his little boat to go down a muddy river to the Pacific and then south along the virgin jungle coastline to a remote lodge he had put together in the Corcovado rain forest.
The place was run by a small family for the expat. I knew I was in for a great adventure because the expat had a huge untrimmed beard and claimed he had a wife in Texas and a wife in Costa Rica and immediately told me, quite confidentiality, that he was an operative for the CIA. He had some issues. The place was empty except for me during the entire week I was there.
That is where I met Raphael, the teenage son of the farming family that managed the place when it was not the rainy season. He was assigned to take me fishing and scuba diving in a tiny Boston whaler.
Raphael had to pump the scuba tanks with a gas-powered compressor and catch our bait before we went out each morning to dive to find shark caves, fish offshore past Caño Island, or to go up the rivers to live within a world of howler monkeys that threw sticks at us from above and massive blue morpho butterflies and macaws that flew around us as we traveled into the rainforest.
Rafael did not like diving because he was afraid of sharks, which he claimed had killed a married couple the year before. I fashioned myself as a bit of a daredevil so I told him I was not afraid.
On my last day there, I told Raphael he could go wherever he wanted and I would go with him. Neither of us knew the other’s language but he told me he wanted to fish for giant pargo offshore out way past the island, where the drop off brought the big fish to feed in the current. All we had was light tackle. These fish can grow to as much as 40 pounds and tend to go deep and run. I’m pretty sure that Raphael did not share with his parents what we were going to do.
We packed extra water and cold beer and some sandwiches. He brought an extra tank of gas. We left in the late morning and easily caught several mackerel for bait. Rafael cut them in half and secured them on our hooks as we motored out into the Pacific. We went way out further than we had gone before. When I lost sight of land for the first time, I became a little afraid. After a while, Raphael switched the gas tanks.
I was at the bow of the boat and Raphael was back at the motor. We sat silently for several hours without a bite. As the sun started to go down, I wanted to go home. We had not seen land for a couple of hours by now. I became a little more afraid as we drifted with the current but I kept it to myself.
As the dark came, I waited and then looked back at him but his rod was bent over and when he looked back he grinned and said one word: “Grande!”
The fish was running deeper and deeper and heading further out into the Pacific. Now I was frightened, but told myself it could be I was just out of my element and I just should trust Raphael.
Raphael, on his unexpected day off, was too excited to give in to the fish. The stars started to come out and we kept being pulled out to sea. The night came, and Raphael kept reeling in the fish and then letting more line go out until there was no line left but his giant fish would not tire as it kept pulling us deeper and deeper into the dark.
The sea was calm and with the dark I had no sense of which direction the land was anymore. The moon rose in the night sky. There was a blanket of bright stars above us now and nothing but silence and the lapping of the gentle waves against the side of the boat until the line broke.
As we prepared to go, we threw the remaining mackerel overboard and the phosphorus all around lit up as our discarded bait was devoured by surface fish.
Raphael pulled the cord to start the boat but it wouldn’t start. He tried and tried again but the motor would not start. We had already used the extra tank of gas to get us out there. We were drifting in the dark with the stars above us as we were taken by the tide.
I said nothing. I was deeply afraid, but was I wrong to be? I didn’t think so.
Raphael tried and tried again until finally there was a sputtering and the engine died and then when Raphael tried again it started. He cautiously revved the engine several times and after examining the stars he then turned the boat and headed toward what I hoped was home.
Despite it all, it was stunningly beautiful. As we skimmed across the water for more than an hour, we lit up the phosphorus around us. Dolphins joined us on both sides of the boat with the glowing phosphorus trailing behind us as we careened over the water with the stars stretched over our heads.
Raphael kept checking the stars.
I was certain we were lost but Raphael refused to show fear. Was I overreacting? Finally, a dim light appeared in a shadow that must be the edge of the rain forest. The lights of the little lodge were all on and there were flashlights coming from the little dock.
As we got closer, I could see several people standing silently on the dock holding the flashlights and pointing them out at the sea. We had no running lights so it appeared they were guiding us into them. We slowed the boat and pulled up to the little ladder.
I felt foolish that I had been so afraid and accepted the hands offered to me as I climbed the ladder and stood on the dock.
Raphael tied up the boat and when he climbed the ladder his mother greeted him and slapped him harder than I’ve ever seen anybody hit before in my life. His family had been waiting ever since the sun went down. I was later told it had been hours of uncertainty.
When I visit Costa Rica this time I am sure that the virgin rainforest will have other lodges now but I have also changed. My heroes now are common people as they almost invisibly care for others.
I have come to understand better now the fear that boy’s mother felt as she waited on the dock in the night and shined her flashlight out at the sea.