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Gifts From a Central America Beach

By Ellen Kattwinkel Wilson / September 23, 1992

THE Costa Rican Guanacaste Beach was empty except for our group from the United States and, far away at the water's edge, a man and a boy lifting three giant ray fish from a dugout canoe, its prow pulled up on the sand.

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On the low dune above the beach rested small houses facing the sea. The front doors stood open. Windows, empty of glass, revealed nothing inside. Unpainted, the houses did not contrast with the dune, the sand, and the sea. They were part of it. No things lay about the houses, no toys or machinery, no scraps of anything, not even grass. Around the houses the ground was bare, swept smooth by the warm, constant Guanacaste wind.

A pink sow nuzzled the ground by one of the houses. Three piglets, their baby skins clean and pink like their mother's, kept close to her. People were by the houses - several men, women, and children moving about, but no noise came from there.

We walked closer and watched the man and boy placing the dark, wet rays, large as wagon wheels, on the sand just at the water's edge.

We stood looking at the giant fish. A Costa Rican man appeared behind us, dressed for business with white shirt and tie. One man in our group spoke enough Spanish to ask him what the man and boy were going to do with the fish.

Our man translated for us what the Costa Rican said: This is an unsanitary and unhealthy business. We others could hear the disapproval in the Spanish, even though we could not understand the words. The Costa Rican businessman looked competent, and his voice spoke with authority. As it was a situation that we knew nothing about, no one chose to ask further questions.

Presently, our group continued on down the beach. I lagged behind, curious about the man and boy and the strange fish lying on the beach and not convinced about the unhealthy label. I just wanted to understand Costa Rica.

For two weeks I had been intrigued. Why was the University of Peace here, not elsewhere? Why was this place a quiet center in a turbulent global region? Why did the museum in San Jose display no weapons or power symbols, only ancient carved figurines of droll animals and birds or human figures playing on pipes? Why is the largest religious painting there of Joseph, not Mary, nurturing the child? What use had been those giant balls of stone adorning the entry?

I wanted to understand the simple homes, the lack of clutter, the generous smiles, and the spotless clothes. How did the children have such clean, white shirts? What pride? What value?

I walked slowly, picking up shells that lay abundantly, admiring their shapes and patterns. Their foreignness intrigued me. And shell-seeking allowed me to linger.

MY group became small dots in the distance, far down the beach. The man and the boy went up the beach to the houses on the dune. Then the boy reappeared, carrying a sharp machete, the all-purpose Costa Rican tool. He knelt down by the first of the big rays and plunged his knife into the ray just beside the ridged back bone.

I sat on the sand about half way between the houses on the dunes and the boy at the water's edge and watched. Just offshore, white pelicans and sea gulls flapped strongly in the air just above the water, then settled on its surface waiting.