Gifts From a Central America Beach

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.

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.

Carefully, the boy slit the fish all down the backbone on either side, his hand and the machete red with blood as he pulled the knife along. Then he cleaned the fish and placed the innards at the edge of the water, so that they were washed by the incoming waves. Some of the pelicans and sea gulls flew up and scooped up the meat and flew away, leaving the sand clean and smooth again. The remaining birds watched and waited.

Then a small girl was standing beside me, shyly smiling. Beside her stood a smaller boy, hardly more than a toddler. He held a small replica of a machete - a toy, crudely cut from wood. Both children were dressed in white T-shirts and light-colored cotton pants. They were very clean and neat. Silently, they looked at me in a friendly way.

I searched my tiny vocabulary of Spanish words. "Usted va a la escuela?" I asked. Do you go to school?

"Si," the girl responded and sat down companionably. We faced the sea and the older boy cleaning the fish.

I PLACED my shells between us and arranged them neatly in a square, all backs facing up, to display their patterns. I counted, placing a finger on each separate shell as far as I knew the numbers. Uno, dos, tres, cuatro, cinco, seis, siete, ocho, nueve, diez, I said.

The little girl laughed lightly, seeing the game, and counted to 10 also but beyond: once, doce, trece, catorce, placing a finger on each of the remaining shells until all were accounted for. The younger boy solemnly watched.

Two dogs came up, wagging their tails. I patted them on their noses. Then a young woman appeared on the other side, carrying a smaller child. How I wished for words.

"Uno?" I asked, nodding toward the child.

She shook her head. "Dos," she smiled, her silence respecting my dearth of language.

The older boy finished cleaning the three fish and washed his hands and the long machete in the sea. The little boy watched him. The sharp knife had a responsibility his wooden one did not.

The edge of the waves barely touched the cleaned fish, washing away the dark stain below them on the sand. Then the older boy, his hands washed and the knife shiny silver again, walked up the beach to the houses, his job apparently complete.

The small girl arranged the shells in a new order - a neat, overlapping row. "Bueno," I said. The game bridged our differences.

The man who had unloaded the fish from the dugout canoe came down the beach again. He picked up the heavy, cleaned fish one after another and rinsed each off in the sea. Then he took one in each hand with the white meat gleaming where the knife had cut through, and carried them, his hand under the gills, back up the beach to the houses. The fish were as large as large luggage and as wide.

The girl rearranged the shells in a neat circle. How quickly we'd agreed on the rules, without words.

Then I stood up. A bus would be waiting.

"Adios," I said.

Quickly, she gathered all the shells, and smiling, poured them into my hands - a gift. The little boy searched and found others, which he too placed carefully in my hands.

"Gracias," I smiled and walked away.

These I'll remember: that windswept beach and sea; those clean, fresh fish; the dignity of work.

And this: that from a simple, elemental home came gracious children bearing gifts of shells.

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