Sometime that afternoon, after seeing very little life except macaws and possibly a monkey or two, we came upon a battered jeep that had been parked in the mud beside the road. We heard voices in the forest, and I determined that we should try to hitch a ride with whoever this was, because by this point my foot was screaming out in full distress. Swelling began to appear from the toe up to the ankle, and the area around my toes was beginning to show a fuchsia tint. At the time I was willing to beg for charity in any form we could get.
My companions, still less interested in my problems than I though they should be, gave uncommitted consent to my proposal. We trekked into the woods a way and found a man and a woman shooting a sling-shot into the trees. This did not seem odd to us; it was common practice for biologists in the rainforest when collecting samples. The slingshot, with fishing line attached, would send a weight over a branch. A chain saw blade would then be raised up and over the branch, and, by using ropes connected to the blade, two people could saw a branch off without leaving the safety of the forest floor. This practice required some trial and error but with practice a botanist could come away with some rare or uncatalogued specimens.
This was obviously what this couple were up to. I told them of my situation, but they were fixated on their gathering. They told us they could take us a few miles up the road, but they would be travelling in another direction once we reached that point. Fine, I thought, a few miles was better than nothing.
But they kept on gathering as my foot throbbed and burned. Putting pressure on it at this point felt like knives shooting through my shin. I found a stump on which to sit while I waited for the scientists and began pondering the wisdom of this trip to Costa Rica which I was dourly regretting at this point. What was I thinking in coming here? This was the most inhospitable natural environment on the planet. People weren’t meant to live in this place, the insects were in charge down here. I kept having an image from one of those time-lapse photography pieces, where it looks like the insects strip down the carcass of a horse in a matter of seconds. That’s how I felt, like that disintegrating horse, being eaten by something small and ruthless, returning me to the cycle of life and assuring I’d never walk in the Costa Rican mud ever again.
When the couple finally decided they were ready I struggled into the back of their Jeep. The ride was bumpy which added to my discomfort, but at least I wasn’t walking. For a few minutes anyway. The couple dropped us off unceremoniously, and as they drove away I saw very little hope indeed. We still had five or so miles to go until the next camp-site, and I was averaging about half-a-mile an hour.
There is no way of knowing how I made it that far. At some point we finally reached the coast. We had traveled roughly 50 miles in four days and may have made it back to the expedition’s camp that night if my foot hadn’t held us up. We never did make it to the intended camp-site for that last night however. By this time K. was becoming more concerned with my situation, possibly because now there were tears streaming down my face. She had also gotten a look at the foot which was in full purplish bloom. For the first time since I had met her she looked alarmed. We had only one option, and that was to stop at the quasi-resort run by the shady Texans.
We had met these folks earlier in the expedition when they zoomed up in a boat to check us out and let us know of their presence. There were three women, a mother and two daughters who had married Costa Rican men and came off as people who weren’t in Costa Rica to bask in the glories of the rainforest. Their activity had a reputation up and down the coast as not being totally legal, and they swaggered with an air of ex-pats who, for whatever reason, might not be totally welcome in their home country anymore.
But, they had beds. And they took travelers checks. This night was by far the worst of my life as far as illness and pain go. After a dinner where I could hardly comprehend any conversation I put myself to bed for a night of agony. Any sleep I managed was fraught with devilish images involving feet, toes, Texans, and mud. The Texans kept a party going into the night which made my visions even creepier, with loud cackling and drawling whispers. There was very little sleeping and a lot of writhing, cursing and not a small amount of praying.
By the morning I knew I couldn’t walk another step. The Texans came up with an idea; they would take me back to the expedition camp in their boat. I saw hope in this suggestion and actually felt optimistic for the first time in days. I began to like the Texans; they had saved me, I took back anything I’d ever suspected them of and realized that there is charity in this world, and, that humans, when need arises, are truly altruistic beings.
Then they told me their price. $100 for a twenty minute boat ride. Another $25 to cash a travelers check, plus what we owed for the rooms. Most of this came out of my pocket, although I seem to remember the other two chipping in a generous amount. I didn’t care how much it cost though, I just wanted to get back to camp.
The boat ride was horrific, every wave we hurdled brought with it unbearable pain. I spent the ride with my eyed slammed shut and my head buried in my shoulder. When we finally arrived and bid good riddance to the Texans I wanted nothing to do with my travelling partners, trekking, rainforests, sand, rivers or mud. I staggered to my tent and picked up the old guitar someone had sent the camp. I started plucking and found some comfort in my old friend music.
Soon I saw one of the expedition leaders coming out to my tent. K. had told her about my trauma, and since this team leader was a registered nurse it was her duty to check on all illness and injuries. I don’t know why I didn’t go to her first, I suppose I was in the mood to lick my wounds away from everybody. I was not in a very good place mentally at that point.
She took a studied look at my foot and determined that if I didn’t get to a hospital that day my foot would be gangrenous by morning. I complied with everything she told me and soon I was being helped into a boat for a three hour boat ride with the same characteristics as the fore-mentioned boat trip. Waves, pain, waves, pain…
Finally, at the hospital, I watched as they lanced and cut away whole parts of my foot. It wasn’t really a hospital in the American sense; it was more of a clinic. I was on my own here too, with no one to translate. At one point they injected me with something and, though I’ve always hated needles this injection was not bad at all, a small prick really. I realized soon enough that this was to test to see if I was allergic to penicillin. The real needle came out and I took it old school, bent over a gurney while the nursed admired my bare white ass.
The entire workforce of this clinic came from every desk and examination room to witness the cutting, lancing and dressing of this rag-tag gringo’s foot. After it was over I felt as if I’d been put through several wringers, but the pressure on my foot was relieved somewhat and the nurse told me I would have to stay off of it for a couple of weeks. This suited me fine. I returned to camp with these doctor’s orders and tried to pick out what novels to read while I convalesced.
Within three days the infection was back. I didn’t necessarily heed the doctor’s advice on staying off the foot. I cooked 4th of July lunch for the camp and the locals and in doing so aggravated the infection. After that, K. made sure I took my antibiotics regularly and every morning and evening she would change my dressing and wash my foot. Soon I was on the way to healing, and one morning one of the team members insisted that I return to work. I acquiesced.
It was an experience which will stay with me until I’m dead or in, what my father calls, the gaga garage. Why it was necessary to leave camp, which was uncomfortable enough, to go “rough it” in the interior still escapes me, but I’m sure it served some purpose if only to provide a long story written on a Sunday afternoon in the mid-Atlantic U.S. The episode didn’t kill me so, if the saying is true, it theoretically made me stronger. I don’t know about that. I’m also not sure about the “personal journey” theory where you find your inner strength through this sort of thing. I don’t see much in the story that indicates strength of any kind. All I know is, in retrospect, that I wish I had stayed on the beach that first day, basking in the sun, eating coconuts and reading novels.