by Elizabeth Striebel
We’re all looking for something.
What startled me most was his candor. He had a soft way about him, present, but not crowding. Actually, he pulled you towards him, as if to hear him better, or to see him more clearly. But he was honest. Of course, how could I know if he was honest? He’d had a long trail of cool beers since early in the afternoon. He spoke with intention, and slowly unraveled his perspective, his ode to his time on Earth, his experience.
He said it was a long question and so was going to make it short.
The afternoon wore on. He talked. We sat at stools on the corner of the bar so we could face one another. It was also the spot for any action, any comings and goings that might catch our eye or spark conversation when he paused. The day was slow. The sea breeze was encouraging, although lazy at many stretches. The bartender tended to two more bottles. Setting them on the counter, he swept away the empties. A bowl of peanuts was sitting full, heavy and saturated in the heat, sweating salt.
An empty ashtray appeared – a heavy conch shell broken open and on its back.
“Twenty years to form that large, swirling, calcified home to this tropical sea dweller,” he had pointed out. And then he had continued to tell me how the conch made its way along the seabed, slowly grazing. How the animal inside was made of all muscle and fat – no bones. Of course, he had emphasized, that made a succulent seafood for folks. Conch. Cambute. Practically extinct. He described the scooping of the great shell and its inhabitant from the sea floor, and then being tossed up to fill the small open panga boats. On shore, the shells were smashed and broken to retrieve the tender meat inside. The shore was an unburied cemetery. He described the shells left in piles mixed with the broken corals and rocks. “And here it rests,” he motioned to the bar, “a piece of that massacre in the form of an ashtray. Use what’s around you, that’s the theme.” He sighed.
The tropics. We let the warm bottom half of our beers sit for a while. The sun was dragging long shadows across the beach and cliffs. The pacific water lapped gently onto the shore. The bar bordered not only the beach, but on its open side was a public street, the road ending here and meeting the sea.
The day’s only scheduled bus arrived just then and let out its dusty passengers. Light- skinned travelers mixed with native locals. Boots scuffled and luggage was slung from the bus’ rear compartment. People efficiently claimed their various boxes, bundles, and travel sacks. He and I sat at the bar and observed all this in our own silence, while the commotion noises outside clamored on. The bus, now empty of its passengers, was slowly refilling with those waiting to travel out. The late sun baked the bus. Arriving passengers shuffled off to find shade and review their guidebooks for places to stay; a traveling pair made their way to the bar and wet their tongues with cool refreshments before moving on again.
The bus revved its diesel engine and noisily backed out of sight. We were again left to ourselves, on the corner spot at this tropical bar.
My companion shifted on his stool a couple of times and then leaned in again. He speculated on these parts and people’s attraction to it – which, he thought, certainly varied. What was it that people thought the tropics could do for them? What was the draw? It was those questions he said that he turned over in his mind as he watched. There must be one thread that wove through all of us here, he speculated. In whatever form.
Remoteness, he concluded, meant only that more effort was required to get there. And that shouldn’t include only physical effort, but mental endurance too. And here he paused. He flagged off the bartender’s gesture for another beer. As he saw it, people viewed the remoteness as quaint or backward, that the residents to be found there were somehow slower, or “poor”. The visitors came to see, they didn’t come to be. They were not coming for the people. They were coming to answer their own expectations, to feast their eyes on nature, the physical surroundings, and the “wonders” they’d been sold on, to get their piece of that indescribable magic.
All this skipped over what surrounding impact was being made, or if the short-lived fantasies were sustainable in the long run. But that, he knew, was not the point. The point wasn’t to make it real life; it was to fulfill an image, to get the magic. He had laughed at this, because that was the illusion – what “magic”? The sun shone, the palms fluttered, and waves rolled. His hands spread open wide to encompass all this around him – the bar, the beach, the beyond. I followed his laughing eyes, his outstretched arms, and felt a giddy lift. I could feel the lightness of the water, the pull of the sand, the comfortable cradle of the blue sky. I left my stool and walked to the edge of the verandah and breathed deeply. Momentarily, I turned back to my companion. But he was not perched on his stool. His warm, half-empty beer still sat on the bar. The bartender’s eyes met mine in wide-open wonderment. He shrugged his shoulders and gestured to a small funnel of sand being shifted and carried out by the wind from underneath the vacant stool.
Elizabeth Striebel is a writer who lives in Costa Rica. This story won the Bronze Award for Travel and Transformation in the First Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.