For the last two weeks, I have posted about a trip I took 35 years ago to Drake Bay along the uninhabited rainforests of southwestern Costa Rica. I had met a young boy, Raphael, who took me scuba diving and fishing for little over a week while I stayed at an isolated lodge I had found down there. On the last day, I told him he could go anywhere he wanted and I would go with him.
He jumped at the chance to go way out into the Pacific to fish for the giant pargo in a tiny Boston whaler. It was the most frightened I have ever been.
Last week, during a trip to Bosque del Cabo, two hours south of Drake Bay, I committed to seeing if I could find Raphael. The driver who picked us up at the little airport at Puerto Jiménez agreed to take Susan and I up the coast through the rainforest if I could first locate Raphael.
Within two days, the assistant at the lodge had found a lead that Raphael, who would be around 55 years old now, had helped to build one or more of the new lodges that now populate Drake Bay. The assistant made phone calls and emailed these new lodges over the next few days, but we were still not able to locate him
With only three days to go, I booked an offshore fishing trip out of Puerto Jiménez to make my own inquiries about Raphael, and to determine how far we really had gone out to sea before we lost sight of land that day and night.
We left around 7 o’clock from Puerto Jiménez in a covered boat about three times the size of the Boston whaler Raphael had used. The captain was about 35 and his mate was about the same age as Raphael was when we went out to sea years ago.
There was only one other boat going out that morning. The two were in radio contact in search of tuna and sailfish throughout the morning. We watched for the gathering of birds diving into the ocean, feeding off squid or schools of fish driven to the surface by the dolphins. These schools would bring the tuna and sailfish, which we wanted to catch.
It was a beautiful day. The cumulonimbus clouds climbed into the sky over the shoreline as we traveled out on a slow rolling tide. Around 11:30, we hooked an 80-pound yellowfin tuna which took about 25 minutes to land.
The shoreline was still visible at 10 miles out. I asked about Raphael, but the captain didn’t really know anyone all that well as far north as Drake Bay.
Before we left, I had asked the resort owner’s assistant to keep trying to locate Raphael. My time was running out. I had only one more day before we had to leave at 5:15 in the morning to get on the only plane leaving Puerto Jiménez for San Jose, take the mandatory COVID test at 8:00 to ensure we could return home on our Delta flight at 2:30 that afternoon.
As we arrived at the dock to meet our ride back to the lodge, I unexpectedly saw the assistant was also at the dock. After we loaded the tuna into the back of the truck, the assistant was strangely quiet as she rode in the passenger seat next to the driver. From the backseat I asked if she had been able to set up our meeting at Drake Bay. She paused, turned her face toward me, and winced as she looked back at me. “He is dead.”
After the long and bumpy ride back to the lodge, I asked Susan wouldn’t it be easy just to lie about that?
I decided that I would pay our bill early, rather than before our exit the following morning. I wanted some time with the assistant so that I could cross examine her indirectly about the seriousness of her inquiries.
When we met, she went very carefully over the bill and the tips we had designated for the staff. She meticulously double checked the math in a way that sadly made me realize how careful and professional she was.
I asked her about what her most recent research had revealed and she confirmed the care that she had put into trying to find Raphael. She pulled out her phone and played back the voicemail reply she had gotten from an old guide who had retired from her work in Drake Bay years ago. The assistant translated each sentence from Spanish into English as she played it back.
The caller explained she had been in the back of a taxi cab in San Jose several years ago with a driver who asked where she was from. When she said Drake Bay, the driver told her he had grown up there. He said his father was a carpenter who had built several buildings as they went up around Drake Bay, including the first lodge that had been constructed there in 1985. His father and mother were one of the first families to populate the southwestern stretch of the Pacific and rainforest around Drake Bay. His father’s name was Raphael.
I persisted and told the assistant I would be willing to meet the cabdriver at the Delta terminal in San Jose after my Covid test. I would feed him lunch and also give him about $100 in colóns as a friend of his father in the hopes that he would meet me.
She agreed to keep trying.
The next morning, we took the early morning flight, did the Covid test, and checked the bags, but I did not go through security at the international airport. I sat on the floor next to the Delta desk.
I waited and waited at the Delta terminal until there was no time left. I went through security and as I boarded the plane to leave, I gave my remaining Costa Rican currency to an unexpecting vendor and asked nothing in return.
It is so easy to lose people and so hard to find them.
Even if I had been successful, I’m sure his son would have pocketed the money and returned to his cab and his daily life.
Thirty-five years ago, there was something courageous and determined about Raphael’s refusal to cut the line and return to safety — and I had refused to stop him.
Looking out the plane window as we took off, I thought even when he is completely forgotten he will be safe and respected in my memory.