I’m standing around outside of Oleaje Sereno restaurant waiting for the river taxi to Rincon Beach, a remote area that backs up to Corcovado National Park on Costa Rica’s southern Pacific Osa Peninsula.
“Everybody knows it as Sierpe,” writes Samuel in WhatsApp, referring to the river taxi pick-up point. “It’s like two blocks long. (Laughing-smiling face.)” Samuel is the proprietor of the Jungalows at Playa Rincon and he’s sent me a photo of my river taxi captain, Gama, whom I now see walking towards the dock. A gaggle of backpackers and a handful of Ticos (native Costa Ricans) are lining up to get on board.
My luggage is sitting at the café from when my morning taxi driver dropped me off. It is an embarrassingly huge blue suitcase I borrowed from my husband without asking. My backpacking days are long over and I didn’t even try to pack light for this trip.
I seem to be the only one milling around the café, uncertain as to whether I’m supposed to follow Gama or wait for someone to come get me. One of the waiters asks me if I’m getting on the boat so I gather up my stuff and pretend to start hauling the big blue maleta.
Thankfully, he stops me and calls to one of the boat guys to come get my luggage.
“Something-something el gigante,” is all I could pick up, followed by something to do with “she’s got her hands full with bean and cheese nachos.”
The boat guy comes and picks up my gigante maleta and “con mucho gusto” readily takes it down the ramp, never looks back, and there’s not even a suggestion of wanting to be tipped for being helpful.
Standing on the dock with the other passengers, I’m peering over shoulders and backpacks to see if this is going to be anything like the “chicken boat” going down the Mekong River from the border of Thailand to Laos, a two-day trip on hard wooden slats, all of us facing towards each other with our luggage piled in the middle.
Thankfully, I see that we each get an actual seat and there are two big-ass, rumbling Suzuki engines on the back that would have made my father-in-law proud.
Gama instructs passengers to be seated in certain sections of the boat, according to where they’ll be getting dropped off, and in what order.
As the last few people pile on, the boat sinks a little with the weight but within minutes we are drifting away from the dock, the engines humming and the motors emitting a low rumble beneath the water.
The boat accelerates, and I am free.
Nobody knows where I am.
Nobody knows me.
Here I am “Carolina,” the Spanish name I was given by my sixth-grade Spanish teacher.
Here, I speak Spanish as much I do English.
My brain works differently because of it.
There are no reminders of home.
I am the expression of myself that I like the most.
I am in a foreign land far from any cities, towns even.
My experience is my own.
Nobody to care and worry about me.
To be concerned about boat safety or where on earth we’re going or what will happen there.
On either side of the vast Rio Sierpe (meaning “serpent”), the spidery legs of mangroves tiptoe into the river. Their thick, visible roots alternate with clusters of palms and other native trees—nature, singing green everywhere. Untouched by humans. Possibly ever.
A reverence comes over me as the boat engines drown out all human noise.
Now I am having an adventure.
Playa Rincon and Corcovado: Getting there is half the fun
Almost four weeks in Costa Rica and it’s been anything but relaxing, really, as I’m not on “vacation” per se, but rather looking into building a tiny house business with my husband and some pretty cool people we’ve been introduced to.
Aside from that, I’ve been working full-time, remotely, and taking a few days here and there. My vacation officially began yesterday but it didn’t feel vacation-like until Game hit the engines.
Almost an hour into the ride, the Sierpe River catapults us right out into the Pacific Ocean—well technically it’s Drake Bay but the mouth is so wide it may as well be the ocean—and suddenly we’re riding swells big enough that my butt comes off the seat and lands again with a thud as ocean spray splashes up on both sides of the boat.
There is nervous laughter (maybe it’s just mine) but soon everyone becomes livelier and more talkative as we exchange “oofs” and “whoas.” I was expecting some sloths dangling from trees along the way; nobody warned me to lay off the bean and cheese nachos in Sierpe. This ride rivals any amusement park sensation.
Sunset at Playa Rincon, Costa Rica
Four middle-aged Hispanic men are swilling Imperial out of cans in coolers they’ve brought. One of them is celebrating a birthday.
“Como se llama esta playa?” I ask the birthday boy, when we drop off some young Tico dudes on a deserted beach with a jungle structure up the way.
“I have no idea,” he laughs. “This is all new to me.”
It’s the third stop and I am still on the boat with the hombres.
Now I inquire, “A donde van ustedes?”
“I don’t even know,” he laughs again, and then questions the group’s leader. “Where we going anyway?”
“Who knows?!” and we all laugh again. “Wherever we stop.”
On my right, the waves are lapping us against the shore as a few people disembark. Soon there is a guy there next to me in the water, pushing against the boat to get the bow to point straight out. In boozy breaths, he tells me more than once that he’s lived there for more than 51 years, followed by something about “soy argencito.”
Or is it argencino? Or argentino? Argentinian?
I have no idea what he’s talking about but he grunts and laughs after everything he says, including something about an avion and Hawaii and I think I might have heard, “how about we take off together?”
A random wave splashes against the boat and like a bucket of water lands right on top of my head, soaking me and everything I’m holding on to. (These are the kinds of adventures I miss in all my domesticity.) I laugh out loud and el borracho, still there trying to steady the boat, laughs at me laughing.
It's all fucking perfect. Pura vida perfect.
That summer we arrived in Paris like we owned the place. At 15, that’s how you feel. Especially when you’ve left your own country for the first time and had a taste of freedom that can never be reversed. In London we ordered chalices of beer and no one blinked. In Paris we bought cigarettes, asking and offering strangers for a light as though we were seasoned smokers.
We learned to say “Je ne compras pas Francais” as though not knowing how to say we don’t speak the language was supposed to impress people. We joined all the tours—Notre Dame, the Louvre, the Bateaux Mouches (pronounced ba-tow moosh)—but then we had hours to do as we pleased, as long as we returned to the hotel by curfew. Which sometimes we didn’t and our Latin teacher who organized and chaperoned the whole thing would curse us.
I remember one time we pissed him off so much he didn’t speak to us for the entire time we were in Italy. We still respected him though (in Latin class he’d tell us stories of escaping the Nazis during the Hungarian Revolution and how he’d been an Olympic diver in Hungary) and he never seemed to take it out on me when I took third year Latin the following year.
Now—like a strange cool dream I return to Paris with my husband. I’m turning 50 in the City of Lights and I want to spend just a day here en route to Barcelona, to finish something I never started: going up the Eiffel Tower. In 1984 I remember standing beneath it with my friends and groaning at the idea of waiting in lines to go up some stupid tower. We were such assholes.
On the other hand, I soaked up so much of what Europe had to offer, it forever changed me and broadened my perspective for years to come. It certainly made me more worldly, more articulate about places and people. And pretty savvy for a smalltown girl. Not to mention, the genie was out of the bottle, so to speak. I could never be reeled in again by my mother. (Sorry mom. I know it was hell.)
The Eiffel Tower line is worth the wait
After checking into Hotel Plaza Opera and appreciating the balcony view of the Eiffel Tower we rush to get a bus to the tower for 5:30 p.m. timed ticketing. The goal is to get to the top by sunset around seven. As you approach the entrance, the street hawkers flash arms hung with Eiffel Tower souvenirs of all sizes and colors: gold, beige, black, and a flashing lights version that seems just too cheesy until you experience being up the tower with the dancing lights and realize it’s actually a pretty accurate representation.
We save our attention and our euros for later and make our way to the queue⏤still an hour-long wait to finally get to the front of the line and onto one of the elevators that takes you diagonally up the side of the tower to the first or second level. At the second level we get off, desperate for a coffee and a snack after nonstop travel, then proceed to the elevator that takes you to the summit.
From atop the Eiffel Tower Paris is aglow with perfection in urban engineering. Golden lights connect the dots of buildings and streets that form neat geometric angles. The Bateaux Mouches casts blue light as it glides effortlessly along the river Seine. Lighted bridges span the river like tiny golden rails meticulously placed to finish off a masterpiece. Two powerful spotlights shine from different angles at the very top of the tower, casting bright yellow light on key monuments below.
Families gaggle and lovers kiss, as thousands before them have over the last 129 years since the Eiffel Tower was built for the World Exposition in 1889. Gustav Eiffel’s application won and he was commissioned to build the tower. It took more than two years and a hundred workers and was an instant hit at the expo and for the city of Paris. At the time, it was the largest building on earth⏤a grand testament to Industrial Revolution prowess.
The Eiffel Tower during World War II
Miraculously the Eiffel Tower was spared during World War II although the German occupation of Paris meant a giant “V” banner (adopting the Allies’ use of “victory”) and German slogan underneath: “Germany is victorious on all fronts.”
In an act of rebellion, the French cut the cables on the tower lifts so that Hitler would have to take the steps if he wanted to go up the tower. Apparently, he never did. And as the end of the war neared, and perhaps as desperate declaration, Paris and all its historical and religious monuments were to be demolished though it never happened thanks to the German general who saw it as an act in futility and knew well by then that Hitler was a looney tune.
After we descend we make our way to the street vendors, trying to decide which version of the Eiffel Tower we should take home to our kids⏤the black one, the beige one, or the gilded one. It occurs to me that the “iron lady” may in fact look like any one of these colors at a given time of day. I always had it that it was just black, but tonight I’ve seen it a flat tan color when we arrive by daylight, turn to a darker beige then to a brilliant gold flickering into the night.
As expected, Paris surprises and delights.
Outside the National Museum in Phnom Penh I spot my moto driver, Dararot, in a throng of drivers all vying for my attention. As I beeline for the motorbike, I pass politely by the amputees (victims of landmines left over by the Americans during the Vietnam War) scooting around in dilapidated wheelchairs and hobbling on crutches, begging for money. I’m relieved when they settle for a cigarette each and the horrible irony is not lost on me when I find myself telling my driver I want to go see Choeung Ek ("the killing fields") and Tuol Sleng (the genocide museum), all in one breath, in one day, like I'm going to Buckingham Palace.
A glimpse of history: Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge regime
When Pol Pot stormed Phnom Penh in 1975, many city-dwellers fled for their lives to the countryside. Many others who stayed behind were systematically executed, seemingly without cause or reason, but certain individuals were particularly singled out: intellectuals, teachers, speakers of foreign languages, but also peasants, Cabinet members, women, children, and eventually, even members of Pol Pot's regime. (For a great movie about this, check out The Killing Fields, about a Western journalist trapped in Phnom Penh at a time when people were trying to escape the country.)
High school turned torture chamber
Tuol Svay Prey High School was turned into a prison and renamed Tuol Sleng, with high walls and barbed wire built around it. Here, the classrooms were made into holding cells by building tiny brick cubicles up from the floors. Accused of holding back the "revolution"--much the same as in Red China--the victims were interrogated and tortured, from being dunked into huge vats of water until close to drowning, to having their fingernails ripped out or their heads placed in a vise. A large wooden beam structure looks as if it might have been a swingset for the former school, but instead, the two iron rings protruding down from the beam were used to string bound and gagged captives up by the wrists (which were behind their backs).
The large vessels for holding water for dunking still sit, with accumulated debris in the bottom. Holding cells have dark stains of red and black on the floors, as if the blood had never been cleaned up when Pol Pot's reign of terror ended. Rusted metal boxes are strewn around the rooms, "toilets" for the inmates, and huge steel bars with ankle rings help formulate a gruesome picture of what it might've been like. Victims not in the brick-wall holding cells were laid in beds side-by-side, their ankles locked into the steel rings which were held fast by a heavy metal, horizontal bar, positioned between two bars which came up vertically from the floor. The victims locked in, side-by-side, were forbidden to speak to one another, and the rules of the prison were strictly enforced; those who deviated were flogged with whips or ropes, or tortured unimaginably.
Skulls in a glass case with labels such as "foreign journalist," "30 year old man," etc.
History comes home: My moto driver lost his entire family
In conversation Dararot tells me he's 40 (but looks about 22). He was in Phnom Penh when Pol Pot arrived, and like many others, he fled, not knowing where his mother, father, and sister were. He eventually ended up in Siem Reap and further west, close to the Thai border, where he remained for three years until the Vietnamese invaded and "rescued" Cambodia from Pol Pot.
He found out only later that his parents, sister, and uncle had been killed. He wants to point out the photos of his mother and father to me—amidst hundreds of other photos of men, women, and children who had been tortured and later murdered. At Tuol Sleng, photos of victims, as well as their torture, line the walls; haunting eyes peer out from emaciated bodies. Like the Nazis, the Khmer Rouge documented their atrocities. Dararot points out the two separate photos of his parents and I nod in solemn respect.
The prison buildings are run down, the paint peeled and chunks blown away by gunfire and grenades. It has a sobering quality: standing there amidst the peace and surrounding beauty, knowing that so much horror had gone on there. The cheerful voices of young guys playing volleyball behind one of the buildings seem incongruous.
After victims were interrogated and tortured at Tuol Sleng, they were taken to Choeung Ek, the killing fields—Cambodia's Auschwitz—if they survived the torture.
Choeung Ek, Cambodia's Auschwitz
We bump along a long, dusty road and suddenly the land off to the left starts looking lumpy behind the barbed fences and wooden posts: some 8,900 skulls/remains have been found, but many more remain. I pay $2 at the entrance and find myself greeted by a large Buddhist stupa. Inside, in rectangular glass casing, reaching layer upon layer to the stupa's ceiling; are human skulls, just sitting there jumbled together like they had never been anything but skulls. The bottom layer in the glass encasing has a few placards: "mature male, 40 years old and up,” "senile female over 60 years old,” "European."
The sight of it is staggering, the tragedy unfathomable, and I find it hard to take in as though it couldn’t possibly have happened. It's just too unbelievable. But it's all real, all here, right here in my face. I mean, my God, what was I doing in 1975? Running around, playing with my friends, going to school and summer camp, fed, clothed, cared for. I've seen nothing.
Gruesome, genocidal details (and remnants) for all to see
Dararot tells me his uncle and sister were killed here. He points out a white sign marker of a mass grave that reads "150 women and children.” Another says "100 victims with heads cut off.” Dararot shows me a heavy spine from a thick-trunked sugar palm. The spine branches were used to slit people's throats. Wooden posts lie around as testimony to the clubbings. Pol Pot wouldn't allow the use of guns, so every victim was tortured "by hand,” and murdered equally mercilessly. Many of the skulls show large holes and cracks, indicating heavy blows to the head.
As we walk alongside the graves, Dararot stoops down and moves the dirt around with his fingers, producing a human tooth and handing it to me to examine. My stomach turns. We kick up shards of bone as we walk, and sometimes find whole pieces lying on the grass. Yet again there's that peculiar tranquility, flowers growing in the gravesites and traditional Cambodian music, carried on the wind from a house nearby.
Dararot returned from the mountains after three years, he tells me. His father, a policeman, who spoke French, Japanese, Thai, and English—bad skills and job to have possessed under Pol Pot—has been murdered. His mother, a teacher, is gone as well.
Having doubts (can you really have your own Pol Pot story for every wartorn tourist spot?)
I've started not to believe Dararot's connection to all this tragedy. It's all too much, the photos in the museum, the familial connections in specific mass graves, and mostly the fact he looks so young. So I've decided he's lying to me, embellishing so I might take some kind of pity and give him more money than the $5 we’ve agreed upon.
But in the next moment I think to myself, the story he's told me is somebody's story, somebody's mother, father, sister, uncle. Maybe it is his, and I'm just in denial. An estimated one to two million people perished in a country of only seven million. It’s likely this genocide has directly touched his family’s life in some way.
And now it has touched mine.
Have you been to Cambodia and did you visit Tuol Sleng and the killing fields?
What were your impressions? Share a comment. Would love to hear your thoughts.
"Certainly, travel is more than the seeing of sights; it is a change that goes on, deep and permanent, in the ideas of living.” - Mary Ritter Beard