From the Costa Rican Chronicles


It was a little over thirty years ago and Bill Cleary and I had spent several weeks in El Salvador surfing ourselves silly. It was time to move on and we’d driven down the coast so we’d be close enough to drive to the border with Nicaragua and cross early the next morning.

The spot we’d picked from the map was on a rocky, wind swept point not far from the main road. None of the maps we had named the place, but it had all the makings for a good right break on a good day.

By late afternoon we’d made camp and since there was no swell, we were working up to playing our daily “food game.” We’d been on the road for so many weeks we'd got to the stage of constructing wonderful sounding imaginary feasts, before sitting down to eat the usual fartfest of brown rice, lentils, beans and canned tuna with fresh alfalfa sprouts.

Bill was in the campervan reading and I was sitting outside on my army surplus cot, idly whittling on a piece of driftwood with my Buck knife. I didn’t notice the boy approach until he was standing between me and the lowering sun.

At the time, my proficiency in Spanish was pretty rudimentary. At best, I could string together a sentence that, if not strictly correct, could at least be partially understood. But Bill was not only fluent and could speak with the speed of a machinegun, he had an ear for the distinct regional dialects and idiomatic phrasing that differentiated someone from Oaxaca from someone from Guerrero ... or a Mexican from a Costa Rican.

I smiled and the boy silently smiled back while I continued to whittle. “What’s that”? he asked, pointing to the surfboards on top of the VW. If any of you have ever tried to explain surfing in English, you’ll know how much more difficult it can be in another language - especially one in which you’re not conversant.

Bill’s explanation flowed like river of words from inside the van.

“Ahhh ..." said the boy. What are you carving?”

“One of those,” I answered pointing to the surfboards.

For the next hour or so the boy and I sat on the beach, while I picked a suitable piece of driftwood and carved the first and last thing in my life that actually looked like what I’d had in mind. Then I handed the boy a perfect little surfboard, complete with slotted fin.

Shyly, he thanked me with a smile and, as if hearing some far off call, turned and ran up the track towards the road.

An hour or so later, Bill and I were discussing a dinner of rare sirloin steak (for Bill), perfectly braised breast of chicken (for me), roasted potatoes and vegetables, various salads and a desert of ice-cream on ice-cream with chocolate cake on ice-cream, when the boy suddenly ran up, gesticulating wildly and talking so breathlessly that we had to wait for him to calm down.

I watched Bill tense and his expression change as the boy explained. There were some “very bad men” who were planning to “hurt" us. They were “crazy men” and the boy had come to warn us.

Apparently, these men were over by the old abandoned shed whose rusted roof we could see a few hundred yards down the beach, back amongst the scrub and trees.

Slowly, the boy led us along the beach to where a very faint track started not far from our campsite. It led through the coarse sand and rocks into denser scrub and back towards the shed.

At that point Bill swooped up the boy in his arms so they could talk, face to face. “Thank you, little warrior,” said Bill in Spanish. “You have saved our lives. But now you must go home. Comprende?” The boy looked from Bill to me and back again. “No, señor.”

“Listen, little friend,” reasoned Bill gently. “You have done all you can to help. We can handle it from here ... and don’t worry, we’ll be safe. Please go home so you’ll be safe too. Don’t tell anyone that you told us in case the bad men find out and get mad at you for helping. Thank you for our lives, little friend. We’ll never forget you.”

Bill gave the boy a big hug then handed him to me. We looked in each other’s eyes until everything was said and after a long, deep hug I lowered him to the ground. For a moment or two he stood and stared at us silently, then turned and ran like the wind.

“OK, Fig. Let’s go take a look at these hombres.”

Bill the photographer & the trusty van that took us
from Malibu to Costa Rica and back ...
Photo by Bob Herron

Frankly, I’d heard enough and didn’t need any more convincing. But Bill wanted to take a mental snapshot of each face just in case we passed this way again and needed to recognize the enemy.

Bill’s years as a hunter and his training as a Marine shifted into gear as I quietly followed. Finally we got as close as we could and saw a group of seven men standing around a fire listening to an older man who was waving what looked like an ancient long barreled revolver in the air. They were taking swigs from a bottle of clear liquid being passed around the circle and appeared to be very drunk.

The wind favored us that afternoon. We could pick up snatches of the man’s rant and figure out their plan from a safe distance. Basically, the head honcho was working the rest of them up into a killing frenzy by lacing the drink with promises of splitting our money and belongings between them once we were killed. Disposing of our bodies would be easy - especially in a country where violent death was a way of life.

The man told them that as he had the only gun, he’d shoot us and the rest could make sure with their machetes. Up to that point they all seemed close to an agreement, but then he added that since the gun was his, he wanted a bigger share than the rest. As we inched back towards our campsite, they were still arguing about who got what and what they’d do with the VW campervan.

It didn’t take us long to pack up and drive off in search of another camp site miles away. And as we left, we saw the group emerge from the scrub to watch us leave. “We’ll never forget this, Fig,” said Bill “We’ll never forget the boy and his courage.”

“Si,” said I in my best Spanish as we headed down the highway towards our next brush with death.

Costa Rican Chronicles and Banditos - Part One© Robert R. Feigel 2001, 2005 - All Rights Reserved