Or how my mid-life crisis got its ass kicked
BASED ON A TRUE STORY (sort of)
By Nick Dangier
LAND AIR SEA
“We’re going to need a bigger boat…” —Chief Martin Brody
Running around the concrete and asphalt jungle which is the Central Valley of Costa Rica today, it is easy to forget just how wild and virgin most of this country still is. As we pass several thousand feet above Llanura de Tortuguero I’m reminded by the vibrant green triple canopy forest rolling by beneath us, just exactly why I fell in love with this country in the first place. There aren’t any condo projects, shopping malls or traffic jams down there.
We pass over the Barra del Colorado Wildlife Refuge and come into sight of the southern tip of Isla Brava which borders Isla Calero to the north. At the confluence of the Chirripo and Colorado rivers we adjust our compass heading to 050 degrees for our last leg to the coast and our RV with Junior. We will follow the Rio Colorado all the way to the Caribbean Sea.
Down below the river resembles a long, winding, chrome plated snake. The early afternoon sunlight sparkles like scattered diamonds across its surface. Looking farther east the sea appears calm, although there are rain clouds building up on the horizon against a steel grey sky. Que va, I thought to myself, you can’t win them all.
There is an old Costa Rican saying that roughly translates to: If you’re going to be in the province of Limon for five days, expect six days of rain. And that’s during the dry season. It’s truly amazing when you consider that less than 100 miles west it is as dry as the Serengeti. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Costa Rica is the biggest little country in the world.
Our landing was butter smooth. The canal was so still it was literally a mirror. I smiled and gave a little wave at my reflection flashing by on the surface below. A water “landing” is far smoother and shorter than landing on a tarmac. The Cessna’s pontoons provide enough drag that less than 150 yards from touchdown we were already taxiing over to the municipal dock at a gentile six knots.
Ratso and I unloaded our gear, including The Kahuna’s sailboard, onto the wooden pier and glanced about for any sign of Junior. We were about two hours ahead of schedule due to Rat’s martial art demonstration at the Hotel del Rey. So for that reason we were not surprised to find he wasn’t there.
There were several small boats tied to the dock, but no sign of Junior’s boat. Other than a pair of local, barefoot chiquitos scampering from piling to piling, dragging behind them a rusty old bucket half full of brackish swamp water along with a six foot (twice as long as they were tall) length of bamboo- a crude net fashioned from chicken wire attached at one end – there wasn’t another soul in sight. No doubt everybody was either out fishing or indoors lying in a tub of ice, under a ceiling fan set to max, in a futile attempt at escaping the oppressive Caribbean heat.
The two little fishermen were looking for blue crab, known in Costa Rica as jaibas. They feed off the barnacle rich submerged ends of the pier pilings. The trick is to catch them when they are “sluffing”-changing shells- to compensate for growth. This is when their shells are soft. Deep fried whole and served between two pieces of fresh baked, lightly toasted sourdough bread along with straight from the garden tomato slices, lettuce and a dab of tartar sauce with freshly ground black pepper… man, I’m getting hungry just writing about it.
Our intrepid pilot was eager to get heading back. It was hotter than hell and those dark rain clouds we’d seen on our flight in were now passing over our heads travelling inland. They had thundershower, with what all aviators fear most: lightning, written all over them. So there were no sappy farewell speeches, pep talk or corny one-liners exchanged like they do in the movies. Just a nod and a fist bump between veteran professionals and The Kahuna was taxiing for takeoff.
The Kahuna would get a room at the Hotel del Rey and hang out there until our new extraction date of Friday in the wee hours; unless contacted by us to come a’ runnin’, as Ratso would put it, if we ran into trouble before that date. He would also monitor our progress via coded cel’ phone texts. That was assuming we’d be able to get a clear signal that far out in the boonies. Our old Motorola PRC units wouldn’t reach Barra del Colorado, let alone Chepe and our Tactical Operations Center at the Del Rey.
We watched The Kahuna lift off into the now totally overcast sky. At less than 1,000 feet he disappeared from view. For a moment more we could still hear the droning of the Cessna’s little four-banger motor as it slowly faded out to the southwest. Then there wasn’t a sound other than the laughter of the crabbers and the pitter patter of their little bare feet on the dock’s wood planks.
I gave Ratso a light punch in his upper arm-buddy like. “So, Gunny,” I said. “How’d you like to kill the next five hours?” I asked hinting with my tone that it was his fault we were so early. “Perhaps you could continue your crime spree. You know, rob the pulperia over there or maybe burn down the church. Sinking boats, smacking around innocent civilian journalist types… you’re on a roll, compadre.” Ratso was giving me the yeah, yeah, yeah smirk, slowly nodding his head up and down humoring me. “How about kidnapping the Mayor?” I added. “In a metropolis like this one, the Mayor has got to be worth $30 or $40 in ransom…” Ratso flipped me the bird.
“Hows about we go down to Archie Field’s place for a little drinky-pooh instead? I’ll buy y’all one of those nice tall ice teas you like.” Ratso replied. He briskly rubbed the palms of his hands together for emphasis. What could it hurt? There wouldn’t be any boozing for Rat’ until we finished this op’ and we were back in Sin Jose. A couple cool drinks down at Archie’s place would sure go down good right about now; what with this infernal heat and all.
I was looking for a safe place to stash The Kahuna’s sail board when a 14 foot panga with a tiny outboard motor came putt-putt-putting over to us. The young guy manning the small open boat looked to be somewhere in his late teens, maybe early twenties. He was clearly of West Indian decent; black as hard coal with an afro hairdo the size of a classic 1970’s beanbag chair. It had orange tinted highlights caused by extreme exposure to the intense tropical sun. He just sat there in his little boat staring at us; the tiny outboard motor purring and gurgling in that way small marine motors do when idling. He had a big toothy grin the size of a picket fence. There was definitely something familiar about the guy.
“You dudes looking for Junior?” Smiley asked, cheerfully, but in a low voice.
“Yeah.” I replied. “Who wants to know?”
“I am Junior’s son.” Smiley replied. His patua English was thick. He pronounced Junior as: “Joon-Yah”, like it was two words. He stood up, all six-foot-three of him, in a strangely formal way; tapping his bare chest with his open right hand before extending it to us in greeting. “They call me Colochos.” He added. Well, well, well… so Junior has a son. He certainly has his fathers tall, lanky build and 1,000 watt search beacon of a smile.
“Where’s Junior?” Ratso asked. Colochos raised his index finger up to his lips as if to say: “hush”.
He glanced up and down the dock, then in a a low, conspiratorial voice said: “Joon-Yah’s been detained. Come, bring your t’ings and we go my faddah’s house for dee-nah. Yeah?”
WISKEY-TANGO-FOXTROT?! Ratso and I just looked at each other, our mouths hanging open. Where the f#ck is our transport? Where the f#ck is Junior? Our new pal seemed to sense we were not pleased and so he quickly added: “Don’t worry be happy. After dee-nuh we go Nicaragua… okay?” What the hell. We didn’t have a lot of options at this point in the game. Might as well go with the flow.
As we loaded our stuff into into the tiny boat I made a silent prayer that this wouldn’t be the boat we’d be taking to Calero. Our sailboard/flopboard was at least four inches longer than Colochos’s panga. The boat was so small in fact and the motor- an ancient 25hp Merc’, built around the same time bell bottom pants and pork chop sideburns were in vogue- so under powered, for even close in-shore ocean navigation I was certain not much more than a Sea State 1 would sink us for sure.
Lucky for us we’d never be far from land and we planned to get wet anyhow. In a way it’s akin to a suited up skydiver riding in an airplane with a sketchy maintenance history: it really doesn’t matter.
About a half mile inland from Barra del Colorado, going up river, we came upon Junior’s home. Good thing for us Colocho’s had showed up. We never could have found the place on our own. It had been that long since we were last there and impossible to reach without a boat.
The place was pretty much how I remembered it: Very Swiss family Robinsonesque. There were certainly more toothy, smiling faces, of all ages, running around. The complex, there is no better word for it, had doubled in size in the twenty-nine years since we’d last visited. It had all grown into a sort of floating city.
This floating township sits parked along the bank of a tributary of the Rio Colorado. Everything is built on wood pilings or floats on empty 50 gallon fuel drums lashed together with cable and steel chains. The wood slat floor boards of the various “hooches” had gaps wide enough between the planks that you could get your toes caught if you walked around barefoot and weren’t careful. Their eco-friendly garbage disposal unit is a family of crocodiles that live in the murky water below. There are no glass panes or screening in the windows. Just hand cut lap wood shutters for when it rained hard or the ever present mosquitos became intolerable. The front door to Junior’s quarters was nothing more than a weaved palm frond mat, backed up against the weather by two garden sized plastic trash bags. Thick leather straps nailed to the tree trunk door jamb serve as hinges.
The whole complex is without alternating current electrical service. They do have a hefty diesel powered generator for the multiple refrigerators needed to feed a clan of this size, in addition to the gigantic flat-screen, Super HD television set Junior keeps in his bedroom. No self respecting Tico is going to miss watching the “Sele” play if they can help it. Even if they live in the middle of a jungle.
Drinking, bathing and cooking water is provided by daily rainfall and is stored in three 1,100 liter plastic holding tanks secured to the roofs of the three main structures within the complex.
In Junior’s Spartan living-room was a 3-D framed black light poster of a scantily dressed Beyonce. It hung on the wall alongside a life size poster of Mohamed Ali from back when the entire planet knew him only as Cassius Clay Jr. It’s the iconic image where Ali stands like a deranged grizzly bear over a laid-out Sonny Liston. I love that look of shock on Liston’s face. It’s priceless. I bought that poster in Time’s Square, NYC, back in ’89 specifically for Junior. He is a life-long fan of The Greatest. It warmed my heart to see how much he still prized the gift.
Junior’s wife/Colochos’s mom is a quarter ton (at least) of joy and boundless energy. Over a wood burning stove she prepared us one of the freshest and most tasty meals I’ve had in a long time (sorry Queenie). While we ate Colochos explained why Junior was not present.
As it turns out, just a day after speaking by phone with The Kahuna regarding our little adventure, Junior got pinched by the Jamaican Coast Guard as they were sailing out of Negril with 600 pounds of High Red ganja. Not only was Junior being held, without bond, in a Kingston jail facing trafficking and distribution charges, his boat- “LA CARCAJADA”- a 36 foot sport fisher, the very boat we were supposed to use, had been impounded by Jamaican authorities.
Junior’s cousin Winston, his First Mate and partner-in-crime, had decided to jump overboard just before the crew from the Jamaican cutter could board them. Luckily for Winston he went unseen by the heavily armed and extremely nervous Coast Guard officials as he made his escape. Junior’s primo spent the next nine hours treading water until another Costa Rican drug boat from their “squadron” came along and much to Winston’s eternal relief, pulled him from the sea severely dehydrated, sunburned and babbling like an Irish priest on Saint Patty’s Day. Junior had refused to abandon ship, though he put up no resistance to being boarded and escorted back to Negril. That sounded like the Junior I remember; cool under fire. That old Bertram was his pride and joy. Right after his bountiful wife, sixteen kids, twenty-seven grand kids and his George Foreman grill. If Junior’s family was worried about him, they didn’t show it. Just another business set back.
So Junior was out and Colochos was in. After all, the show must go on. What bothered me most was that we wouldn’t be going in style, as I’d hoped. It was Colochos’ bathtub toy or nothing. I tried my best to put it out of my mind for the moment and focus on the last cup of coffee I’d be enjoying for a few days.
Those rain clouds which had followed us in suddenly burst wide open and it began to pour with the kind of volume you can only experience in the equatorial world. Yet as abruptly as it had begun, the shower soon stopped and the heat and humidity returned with a vengeance. Soon legions of frogs were singing their throaty songs, looking to feast on the thick clouds of mosquitos which had also come out to enjoy the humid air and taste of our blood.
It was time to go. We paid Junior’s senora the $200 USD, cash, we’d promised Junior plus a few sheckles extra for the pan fried snook with rice and shaved coconut extravaganza. There was never any mention or any questions about exactly where we were headed or why. I got the impression Big Momma believed we were going out for a little night fishing. After a seemingly endless line of bear hugs and handshakes, we were back on Colochos’ floating death trap heading down the dark river. It was now a little over an hour past sundown.
As the tiny craft cut through the black, eerily still water we were surrounded by a symphony of jungle sounds. Each critter competing to be the loudest with their own individual solo performance. Above us bats swooped and darted, competing with the frogs for their dinner. It was so dark I literally could not see the bald spot on the back of Ratso’s sunburned head.
We were running on time, as far as our mission plan, but I’d calculated how long it would take us to reach our insertion point using Junior’s 36 foot Bertram sport fisher with twin eight cylinder Detroit diesels. Not Gilligan’s dingy. Every minute past peak high tide meant more beach to cover on our OTB; more danger of getting caught. Or worse.
The sky overhead and to the north was cloudless. For now. There was a historically big full Moon predicted in about a week. For that reason we had way more Moon, that is to say- visibility- than I would have preferred. In addition we were hitting a stiff cross-chop of two foot whitecaps. Colochos’ under powered little boat couldn’t seem to achieve its plane; making for a bumpy ride with lots of salty spray to blur our vision and sting our eyes. We were running without navigation lights. Once we were beyond the breakwater Captain Colochos took us straight out on a 090 degree easterly heading.
Ten miles off the coast we made our turn to the north. Running without navigation lights we were beyond sight of anyone who might have watched us sail out of Barra del Colorado. For all they knew, we were headed out into deep water for a little squid jiggin’, not headed north to poke Ortega’s pinata full of live hornets.
As trained and well practiced old school operators, Rat’ and I immediately went about preparing for our insertion, even though we were still a couple of hours out from our destination. At least a couple of hours. We slipped into our tactical garb, including two old water skiing flotation vests which we’d painted flat black before leaving Tigre’s fish camp.
The vests would help us support the weight of our gear as we made our swim in. They’d also provide us with potentially life-saving buoyancy in case one of us gets knocked out by a submerged palm trunk as we negotiate the surf break. It has happened, trust me. Of course there was also the very real possibility (because of our “advanced” age) of a heart attack or stroke at any point during our swim- though neither of us would ever publicly admit to harboring that fear.
I pulled my black Turbo swim fins- made to fit over a pair of combat boots- over my combat boots and adjusted the tightening straps as tightly as I possibly could. Losing a swim fin on a real world op’ is a big bad no-no. I glanced over at my swim buddy and in the pale moonlight I could see he was doing the same thing.
I re-checked the main compartment of my rucksack to confirm (again) that I’d placed -at the top- the doubled up zip-lock bags containing my dry fatigues, gloves, socks and ghillie suit. You don’t want to be dicking around looking for your stuff when you need them quickly and are in no safe place to be clicking on a flash light. I also patted the left side cargo pocket of the pants I was wearing with my left hand. I was looking for the tell-tale bulge that was my “blow-out kit” aka first-aid stuff. Yup, it’s there. Good…
The one item I was most anal about was the camera Pete the Yank had loaned me: a mint condition Nikon Digital Super HD Mark-2 (still shot and video capable), with two extra batteries and a zoom lens. It was a 2013 model and still worth $5,000 in Costa Rica. I’d rigged up a waterproof (I hoped) case for the camera using a plastic six-pack cooler I’d bought at the Chinaman’s supermarket in Santa Cruz the day The Kahuna picked me up. I secured it from prematurely opening during our swim in, with duct tape and clear silicone. Pete had made me promise -Scout’s honor- that I would NOT get it wet or operate it in any humid environments. “It’s for my god daughter’s second grade dance recital…” I’d told him. “It will definitely be held indoors.” The last part I’d offered up to reassure him. Of course I’d had my fingers crossed behind my back the whole time.
Finally it was time to put on our make-up. We each applied the other’s camo’ face paint. It’s easier than fumbling around in the dark with a tiny mirror in your hand. To Colochos we must have looked like a couple teenage girls prepping for their big double date at the Mall. You know it’s not going to be just another day at the office when it starts out requiring facial camouflage paint, and you’re not going to a Kiss concert or trick-n-treating on Halloween.
The boat was shuddering and yawing so much the whole time, Ratso twice poked me in the eye with his Jimmy Dean sausage-link size fingers. If any of this struck Colochos as strange or alarming, he didn’t show it. It was just another day’s work to the kid. Like father, like son.
With ourselves fully jocked-up and our gear squared away, it was time to kick back and enjoy the ride. Or at least try. I moved aside one of the five-gallon Jerry cans full of extra fuel and stretched-out right there on the wet deck.
We’ve all got our pre-game rituals. For Ratso it’s getting blotto the night before a gig. I tried but failed not to smile as I pretended not to see when he scored the little flask of chirriti off Colochos mom just before we split Junior’s floating city. No doubt she’d brewed up the Costa Rican moonshine herself.
WRITER’S NOTE: I actually believe Junior’s old lady has the hots for our boy Ratso. But that’s between us- writer/reader privilege.
My personal ritual is to motivate my inner samurai and appease Zeus, Mars, Poseidon and all the archangels with hardcore rock-n-roll. During the Panama invasion (OPERATION JUST CAUSE) my go to bands were Guns-n-roses and the Butthole Surfers. During the first Gulf War (OPERATION DESERT STORM) my musical tastes evolved into The Cult and Faith No More. You remember those old Sony Walkman? I had mine on me at all times it seems like, remembering back now. In West Belfast during REDACTED (1993 – 1995), my favorite groups were U-2 and The Stone Roses. Yeah, I know, but in my defense I was going through a very dark period in my life at the time. And you cannot imagine how depressing weather can be until you’ve survived just one winter in Northern Ireland.
For this little field trip I’d brought along my kid’s $365 Beats earphones (I bought my first car for less). My son had kindly downloaded a play list he’d put together especially for his ole Pop: Greta Van Fleet leads off followed by Muse and other “new” groups (new to me), then wraps up with AC/DC’s album- Let There Be Rock (some things are timeless!). I’d calculated that by the time “Whole Lotta Rosie” came on my headset we should be closing in on our insertion point. Hopefully, if I still had it, we would find ourselves just off Punta Castilla or roughly one mile shy of where Ratso and I would take our little dip. Obviously because of circumstances beyond my control, my original calculations would be slightly off.
I was having that reoccurring dream where Lady Gaga and I are doing the horizontal lambada in the back seat of the 1968 Cadillac Eldorado I drove back in high school. On the after-market 8-track tape player, I’d crudely bolted to the dashboard, played the soundtrack from the movie American Graffiti. We were not alone. Queenie, my wife, was driving while she rattled off a list of chores for me to do when we got home. Starting with that damn corral roof…
My moment of bliss was short lived. As always. I woke-up to Colochos violently shaking my left swim fin. He had that blinding, toothy grin of his. For a moment I almost told him to shut his mouth lest we be spotted by a passing Russian spy satellite, but I thought better of it. He’s a good kid and I am prone to being cranky when I first wake-up.
Using the boat hook I tapped Ratso on the top of his head until he finally came awake cursing the world and all our mothers. He is 1,000 times worse than I am. Ratso is as volatile and unstable as liquid nitro’ when he wakes-up. That’s why I used the boat hook. You don’t want to get too close.
Colochos had brought us to within two miles east of Punta Castilla. I sat up and squinted toward shore trying, without success, to make out our landmark and the Sandinista Marines that I knew were dug in close by. The mouth of the Rio San Juan was much easier to indentify.
The current was strong and running south, parallel to the coast. The white-caps were getting bigger as the on-shore wind blew harder. With every other wave the struggling little outboard’s propeller came out of the water threatening to shear its cotter pin and go spinning off. NOT GOOD. I gave Colochos the thumb down internationally recognized signal for reducing speed. I also motioned for him to bring us in closer to shore. Even this far out it would be bad trade craft on my part to shout over the sound of the motor and hissing of the wind. Flashing my hands- fingers outstretched- I indicated to our Captain we wanted to come in to about 800 meters; half the distance we’d planned for. Otherwise, because of the current, we risked getting carried down to the Sandinista encampment on the beach just south of the San Juan River mouth.
We could have adjusted for the current by inserting farther north, but with the worsening sea state I was now not just worried about Rat’ and me, but the kid as well.
We lashed The Kahuna’s sailboard to the windward side (in this case the right side) of the little boat. Ratso extracted his smart phone and sent the first message to HQ via text. It read: Hey, Uncle Bob! We’re up to bat… This told The Kahuna we were off our insertion point and preparing to hit the water. Rat’ didn’t wait for a response. He wrapped the phone back up in a clear plastic zip-lock sandwich bag, then returned it to the small side pocket of his rucksack.
Once Colochos had us about 800 yards off the beach, Ratso and I gathered up our ruck’s and eased over the starboard gunwale, staying low and keeping our bodies horizontal as we did. We positioned ourselves on the flop board prone- head to heel- with me forward of Ratso. I’d be the first to go into the water. We lay face down, palms on the deck of the board as if we were about to do a set of push-ups. I’d wrapped the straps of my rucksack around my right arm. In this way I didn’t risk my ruck’ snagging on anything when I made my plunge. Strapped to my ruck’ were two three liter camelback canteens. I have water in mine. I could only guess what Ratso had in his.
As we came up on our insertion point Colochos gave Ratso a squeeze of his calf which he relayed to me by way of a squeeze of my right ankle. That is where the grope fest ended, my intrepid reader, and I like a prize thoroughbred launching out of the gate, sprung off the flop board and into the black, surprisingly warm sea. Two Mississippi later Ratso followed with a splash.
Going over the outboard side of the boat kept our insertion from view of any nosy Nicaraguan trooper with a binocular or a pair of night vision goggles. The Kahuna’s sail board turned flop board put us just two inches above the water, for less of a splash when we hit the water, and also provided us enough distance away from the boat that we didn’t risk (as much) getting run over or chopped up by the outboard’s propeller. It’s no joke. While we were practicing for this caper off Playa Junquillal, Ratso got a four-inch gash cut straight through one of his swim fins. And that, kids, is why God invented duct tape…
The ski vests and our rucksacks provided so much buoyancy, that we didn’t penetrate too deep below the surface on our flop. I came up, gave a couple shakes of my head to clear the salt water from my eyes and ears, then I immediately looked for Ratso among the whitecaps. Sure enough he was just a couple yards ahead of me. We swam toward one another so we could hear each other without shouting. Sound travels farther at night than it does during the day and even more so on the water; especially with the wind blowing strong on-shore toward hostile ears.
We tread water effortlessly with the extra buoyancy provided by our vests, rucksacks and huge swim fins. Ratso and I watched as Colochos slowly disappeared to the north. As planned he would stay on his northerly course for one kilometer more before easing his way back out to sea- then south and home. We could just make out his brief slow motion wave before his image melted into the balmy night. As long as Colochos didn’t sink or smile in the direction of any Nicaraguan patrol boats, he’d probably be okay.
I did a quick check of my ruck’. Good to go. Then I did a time check and was happy to see I hadn’t lost my watch during our insertion. It was just past 2340 hours. That’s twenty minutes before midnight. We were now officially 1 hour and 50 minutes behind schedule. Time enough to get you fired from your desk job. Time enough to get you killed if you didn’t have your hide built before sunup.
Looking for the shoreline it was difficult to see, bobbing up and down between the whitecaps as we were. Checking the water proof compass I had strapped on, next to my watch, on the inside of my left wrist I pointed out west to Ratso. More as confirmation than anything else. He was wearing all the same gear I was. Rat’ nodded and gave me an enthusiastic thumbs up.
“Ready?” I asked my swim buddy over the howling of the wind and the sloshing of breaking whitecaps.
“Ready, Freddy.” Ratso replied, cheerfully spitting a fountain of sea water at me as if to punctuate his reply. “Wanna race, Gramps?” He added. Ratso was in the best mood I’d seen him in all week. Is he drunk? Sweet Jesus…
“See you on the beach, Loco.” Was all I said in response, grinning myself- drunk on adrenaline. As it turned out, I got the last word. It would be hours before either of us would communicate verbally; not even in a whisper. From here on we’d be like ghosts on the landscape.
On the swim in we stayed within arms reach of one another and kept to a 270 westerly compass heading. Even with more moonlight than was my liking, it was impossible to make out landfall due to the sea state. Judging by my kick count we’d gone 500 yards- a little over half way- when suddenly we could just make out the dark, jagged jungle tree line no more than 200 yards ahead. At 100 yards from shore we could make out a thin, pale yellow ribbon of sand separating the black sea from the jagged, dark grey silhouette of la selva.
Approaching a wave from behind it’s really not possible to judge it’s size with any precision, in the way you can’t judge the height of a waterfall approaching it from upstream. Especially at night. Typically the back side of a wave is roughly half the height of its face. Hawaiian surfers only go by back side when estimating the height of a wave (the cheeky bastards). Being experienced surfers now ourselves, with decades surfing both of Costa Rica’s spectacular coasts, we knew that short of a freak storm we weren’t likely to encounter any surf here that could compare to the power of a Pacific swell or size of the surf on the Pacific side of the country. The waves averaged six feet off McKague’s Point, where we practiced for this OTB. With all that said, I’d be lying to you if I said it still wasn’t a little scary passing through even a small break from behind. Double attempting it at night.
Staying low in the foam created by the breaking surf (no biggee, 2 to 3 footers) we slipped off our swim fins and secured them to the D-rings fastened to the right side of our rucksacks. Then we let the waves deposit us onto the sand as if we were so much flotsam. In order to attract less attention we separated ourselves by about twenty yards then we cautiously began our slow crawl toward the tree line.
Pushing our ruck’s ahead of us, we stay pancake flat. We do not want to leave so much as a single boot print on the wet sand. I mean we might as well erect a billboard, fire off a flare and crank up some Black Sabbath. Using our elbows and the inside edge of our boots, we push-pull ourselves forward inch by inch. In less than four and one-half hours it would be sunup. Any tracks we leave behind better damn well resemble the bull-dozer like tracks of a couple pregnant sea turtles.
Even sopping wet I’m sweating like a pig. Five minutes past 1am and the temperature is still in the 90’s. The air is heavy and feels sticky. I could see mist, caused by the radiant heat of the jungle, seeping out of the tree line ahead of me. The on-shore wind had died down to barely a breeze. Beach gnats, called “No See’ems”, were feasting on my face, neck and hands. At least I could protect my hands by covering them with sand. My face and neck were another matter. The damn things get in your nostrils, eyes and ears. The last three meters of my OTB I had my eyes closed tight. I didn’t stop until my rucksack bumped into the trunk of an almendra tree.
Once safely concealed in the tree line I retrieved the boonie hat with stitched-in mosquito netting from the right side thigh pocket of my now sandy and sopping wet fatigues, then pulled it on tight. Blessed relief! Ratso, though I could not see him, would stay put- stay “frosty”- and wait twenty minutes before moving to my position: Scout/Raider SOP 101.
We catch our breath and lay still. We tune our ears to search out any sound and our eyes to any glint of light that might betray a human presence other than our own- such as a Sandinista patrol or sentry who may have spotted us on our way in. Looking seaward I saw nothing but ocean. Scanning north up the coast you wouldn’t know humanity even existed. Same for looking south. Peering inland I cannot make out anything beyond the yard or so of foliage before me. That’s good. He whom I can’t see, can’t (theoretically) see me. I took several big swigs of water from one of my camelbacks and kept my eyes and ears open.
Twenty minutes later Ratso came crawling out of the bushes grinning like the fisherman’s cat. Now that we were convinced we hadn’t been made, we went directly into changing out of our wet, sand encrusted clothes and into our dry, clean ones. Then we slipped on our ghillies; making use of the natural foliage around us to “tune them up”- that is to say: make us match our current environment. We also re-applied the camo’ face paint that had washed off during our swim in. I concealed our ski vests under a pile of fallen and thoroughly rotted out palm fronds. We wouldn’t need them any more and we couldn’t risk them being discovered by a Sandee patrol. Meanwhile Rat’ made comms via text with The Kahuna: Hey, Uncle Bob- Made the clam bake. Sadly no chicas… Translation: We’re on the beach. Coast is clear. Moving to Rally Point (RP) #1. All of this we accomplished without uttering a single word.
My source at Fort Meade told me that the Russians have set up a Death Star sized electronic listening station atop one of those honking, big-ass volcanoes they have in the middle of Lake Nicaragua, which is actually more of an inland sea. This station is powerful enough to spy on the United States, it was sure as hell powerful enough to pick up our comms’ to HQ back in Chepe. So we communicate with The Kahuna using innocuous gibberish.
I felt like a new man in dry clothes and my ghillie. With the jungle as our ally I felt relatively invincible. Silently Rat’ and I went into a game of rock-paper-scissors; just one throw, no two-out-of-three bullshit. We didn’t have time to screw around after all. “Damn,” I barely whispered. I went rock. Ratso went paper. He won, so I took point.
It was impossible to know exactly where we were until we reached our first rally point: 150 yards north of the San Juan River mouth. Due to the coastal current our OTB had begun a good two to three hundred yards farther south than we’d planned. Two or three blocks is nothing strolling through downtown on a Sunday morning, but that same distance can take hours when patrolling at night through dense bush and in hostile territory. For that reason as we passed our first rally point we found ourselves back on schedule. We were now less than half a kilometer away from where our sat’ intel’ photos show the Sandinista camp on Calero. Technically speaking we are still north of Calero in actual legitimate Nicaraguan territory; just a few short meters north of the San Juan River.
As we passed our second rally point Ratso popped off a message to The Kahuna, giving him an update as to our progress. After a short break I led us on the last leg of our patrol to Observation Point One (OP 1). At that point we were roughly 300 yards shy of our first choice of OP’s. We had designated three options based on what we’d seen on the sat’ photos. But then we came upon something we had not seen on the sat’ photos: A narrow channel approximately ten yards wide. It was covered by thick mangrove roots and heavy canopy. This narrow stretch of creepy, dark water wasn’t visible on the damn sat’ intel’ photos. No problema. You simply wade or swim across while speed praying Hail Marys’ in your head and hope nothing bites you.
The embankment we had to descend was not very high- maybe six feet. If not for fear of creating a loud splash- thusly alerting the Sandees and the crocodiles to our presence, I’d just jump in and zip across. Obviously I wasn’t going to do that now. The embankment wasn’t steep, but it was slippery in that greasy sort of way river mud and wet clay can be. So I cautiously ease my way down. Once down into the waist high water I began to slowly and silently make my way across. The whole time I was asking myself why in hell I wasn’t home in bed, like all the sane and mature people. That is when I heard Ratso come tumbling down the embankment, nearly crashing on top of me. To make matters worse at that very same moment I distinctly heard two adult male voices speaking Spanish with unmistakably Nicaraguan accents.
I couldn’t get an exact fix on where the voices were coming from or exactly what they were conversing about at a quarter past 2am, in the middle of a remote swamp. Were they crocodile poachers? An army patrol would never make that much noise- or would they? Sloppy and untrained buffoons. Could they be drug smugglers? Certainly no shortage of them. Who in hell else would be out here?
I rushed over to Ratso who was lying face down exactly where he’d landed. He wasn’t moving. Had he heard the voices too and was just lying still? When I got to him I could see he was unconscious. He had landed face first on a large boulder, his arms by his side as he did, providing no buffer when his skull slammed into the stone. Sweet mother of diabolical bull shit! Stay cool, Nicky Boy…
COULD THIS BE THE END OF RATSO? WILL TICOS EVER FIGURE OUT THAT THEY SHOULD BREAD AND DEEP FRY TAMALES? WILL I EVER WIN AT ROCK-PAPER-SCISSORS? For the answers to these and other pressing questions, stay tuned to the next ACTION-PACKED episode of “The Curse Of Calero or how my mid-life crisis got its ass kicked”. In next week’s rockin’ edition of THE COSTA RICA POST!