The ten of us were walking at sunset to the turtle refuge where we would be camping for the next few days. Having just spent many hours jammed together in a stuffy, cramped van on the way to Tulín from San Jose, Costa Rica, we were all happy to be nearing our site and out moving our legs. We were told to stay as one group for the 3-mile walk to camp, which of course meant that we quickly settled into pairs or individuals spread hundreds of meters apart along the beach. As a group we knew we were together – we just wanted a little deserved separation when we could get it.
I loved that walk. The van was meeting us at the site with all of our gear, so for one glorious hour the weight of the expedition was lifted from us. It was blissful to just be, to tread on the sand with no shoes, no heavy packs, not planning a hike for tomorrow or dinner for that night. I was walking with Britten, and I remember how it seemed very exciting to be sharing stories, unencumbered on the beach – like I had never had a conversation on the beach at sunset before, like I might never have one again. That was something I learned to appreciate very much in Costa Rica – the uniqueness of a moment. I learned that often you barrel through life and you have to get things done and that’s fine. You never finish. Life is a continuum of motion, and stopping is dying and living is moving on. But there are breaks. And you don’t know when they’re coming, but when they do – when that moment of clarity is born – you breathe it in as if you’ve never breathed before and like you won’t get to do it again for a very long time. This walk was a breath of fresh of air, a gift of the sea, and I like to think all ten of us recognized it for that and reveled in it as much as we could.
I was sad when I heard Zach calling from behind, shouting Come here, Come here, because I knew it would be about herding the group together – it would bring me back to responsibility, back to reality, away from the lovely cloistered conversation with a friend on a foreign shore. Britten and I turned around and saw Zach waving at us, squatting down on the sand. He was alone, and this didn’t seem to have anything to do with the group – the next pair were hundreds of meters away, just specks, far away on the shimmering shore. We walked to where Zach was standing.
“Look,” he said, “Isn’t it incredible?” I thought he was talking about the sunset, and I looked out and I agreed, slightly annoyed that I had been called away from my own sunset to look at his, but understanding that a sunset is sometimes better when shared. “Oh my god!” I heard Britten exclaim. Realizing at this point there must be more to it, I turned to them and found them both squatting, looking intently at something in the sand.
“Oh my god,” out of my mouth this time, the words nothing more than a breath. There was a turtle in the sand: tiny, vulnerable, alone. Recently hatched, it was crawling its way towards the ocean, attempting to start its new life in the Pacific. “Don’t touch it,” Zach warned softly, and Britten and I nodded. If we touched it, the turtle would remember our human smell and not this beach, and it would not be able to find its way back here to lay its own eggs some day.
The three of us stood there, transfixed, at a slight distance, for what must have been twenty minutes watching the drama of the sea unfold. The turtle, all of two inches long, would get close enough to the water that the waves would wash over it, either pulling it closer to the sea or pushing it farther back onto the shore. It was heart-wrenching watching the turtle get tossed about like a plaything, knowing with each minute it was losing strength, and though we could do nothing to help it, if it didn’t catch a favorable wave soon, it would die on the shore, never reaching its home.
By this time, our group members in front of us had turned around to see why we had stopped, and they were walking towards us, and those behind us were close to catching up as well. As a group, we gathered there while the sun set, watching this little turtle struggle to get to the sea. Half of us admonishing the other half for getting too close and to back off, all making noise, all a group together once more.
I don’t remember if the turtle did actually make it into the ocean. After the group arrived and everyone started bickering, the magic was gone for me, and even though I hoped the turtle would fare well, for me it was time to keep moving, and I left, continuing on towards camp. Either Britten or Zach was still back there, and I knew they would fight for the turtle’s right to survive.
I walked by myself now, occasionally stopping to look toward the sea, admiring the sun as it sank ever lower over the horizon. Ahead of me was camp, awaiting me were three wonderful days in Tulín, paradise on many accounts, adventures abounding, secrets to be discovered. But the hour of clarity was gone – it set with the sun. In the next half hour, the group would catch up, and together we would begin our new phase: cooking dinner, setting camp, evening meeting, sleep, then another day under the Costa Rican sun.
On the beach that dusk, I was given many gifts. Good conversation, fresh sea air, a beautiful sunset, a view into the beginning of life – and perhaps death – for one of earth’s newest creatures. I had my camera with me, and I kept taking pictures, trying to capture how I was feeling in an image. A few of them came out well, but there is one that says everything, and it’s this one:
Do you see that arc of light in the lower right hand corner, the slight aberration in the ripples of the sea-sodden sand? That’s the turtle. That’s it. Tiny, sunken, resilient even under the shadows of so many human bodies. This pictures shows worlds colliding, lives lived in layers, the earth playing host to both pedestrian terrestrials and sea-faring sagas. This picture makes me think of being there with the group on the shore, makes me relive the whole afternoon, from the bliss of independence to the excitement of discovery, and finally to the eventual landing at discord over how to handle things and having to make group decisions once more. This picture was the beginning of a new chapter for our group. In Tulín we would sink to new depths of disfunctionality, and then surprise everyone, including ourselves, by reaching new heights as we crawled slowly out of our own emotional mire. Looking at this picture brings me back to Costa Rica, where daily I was forced to make decisions on which hinged the physical, emotional or mental stability of a group of ten or more, where every experience was new, every glance called into question something which I had never fully questioned before. This picture brings back the contrasting serenity and chaos of the expedition – always the natural world muddled by human action or emotion, learning to live with that mixture, learning to understand that we’re not as separate as we seem.
It is now four weeks since the expedition ended. I’m finally going back over the pictures from the trip, and the memories are coming with them. I often hesitated to take pictures in Costa Rica. Did I want to ruin an actual experience, my actual life, to take out a box made of plastic and use it to obscure my view of the world? Often the answer was no, and I took no picture at all, and it was very satisfying to savor the moment and internalize it without any help from machinery. Sometimes the answer was yes, and I snapped a picture, and it turned out that I’m very happy indeed that I recorded the world in that way, captured a memory.
I often struggle with whether or not to take notes on the world or just simply take it in. I think that’s every writer or artist’s dilemma, and it’s a delicious one. Do I experience this later, through digital imagery or written word? Or do I experience this now, do I really consciously drink this experience in, and the only record I’ll have of it – the only proof this moment exists – lives inside of me and may never come out? I’m learning both are good, balance is good. There’s no equation. Sometimes you’re on top of a mountain and everyone is whipping out their cameras to take a picture, and that’s when I know I don’t want one. If everyone is creating the same memory, what good are we humans anyway?
I try to not live behind my camera or notebook, but I don’t discard them completely. Living in the present is best. But having a device that can capture a whole swell of emotion with one press of the button or flourish of the pen? That’s powerful.
As I go through these pictures, the sights, sounds and smells of Tulín swirl around me anew, reminding me where I’ve been, how far I’ve come. It’s rainy today in New England, and if I look out the window just right, I can imagine the those birch trees across the street are actually rainforest trees, and the clouds above are misty mountain clouds, and waiting on the other side is an adventure, familiar yet foreign, waiting, just waiting for me to explore.