I came to Costa Rica to teach English and live on the beach.
I was a slacker in college. Bs, Cs, and a degree in Communication Studies — which took me five years. That last semester I only took three subjects: children’s literature, the history of rock and roll, and human sexuality. The classes were filled with sorority girls, stoners, and seniors looking for easy electives, respectively. I wouldn’t have even known that had it not been for those in-class exams — three of them. I showed up to each class three times. In hindsight, I maybe should have gone to that children’s lit class. The women in Costa Rica are beautiful, but blondes are in short supply. I’ve always been partial to blondes. It’s another one of those things you take for granted before you leave Texas.
The first two months I spent in San Jose. Twelve of us met every morning at 10 a.m. for orientation. The class was led by a wiry Tico named Jose. He encouraged us to call him Pepe. For eight weeks, Pepe went over basic Spanish to help us survive the first year in Costa Rica. “Me llamo Bryan.” “No hablo bien al Español.” “Donde está el baño?” and, as I would eventually have to learn: “No, gracias. Soy alérgico a los crustaceos.” That had been the first time I almost died in Costa Rica: at the hands of a cangrejo. My host mother cooked a special meal for me on my birthday. I had never eaten a paella before. I’d been brought up with the “eat whatever is put in front of you or else” mentality. How was I to know that I was allergic to Costa Rican crab?
I learned about my alergia the best way possible: by nearly choking to death. It’s amazing how fast your body can have an allergic reaction. My throat swelled shut immediately. Unfortunately, a small chunk of cangrejo was caught in my esophagus. I think my coughing confused my host father; he probably thought I had swallowed a little water down the wrong pipe. He gave me a hard pat on the back. Then another. And then another. I did not know how to ask for help.
After a few more wheezing coughs Jorge looked into my eyes, saw my panic — realizing his pats weren’t helping — and did the only rational thing. He motioned for me to get on my knees, which I did — I was full-on panicking at this point — and then proceeded to raise both arms high above his head and bring them down hard against my traps with the full force of his weight and momentum. It hurt like hell. I fell forward, nearly breaking my nose on the kitchen floor. My balled-up hands broke my fall, the force of the plummet pushing them hard into my stomach. The lump of food, mercifully, dislodged itself from my throat. I learned that night that Crustaceos are no friend of mine. And I learned a new, important word in Spanish: Ayúdame. “Help.”
After orientation in the capital, each of us was sent to our assigned cities. I had no say in the matter — there was no “This is my first choice, this is my second choice, etc.” — rather, on the last day of class we showed up to find a sheet of paper taped to the door of our classroom. It had each of our names and, next to them, two more names: one of a school and one of a city. I lined up an index finger next to my name. Bryan Gómez. Next to my name: Colegio Mariano Rivera and Jacó.
The following day, I packed my suitcase and bid farewell to Jorge and Lola — who, from day one, insisted I call them Mamá and Papá. Lola and Jorge had three children of their own, but they all lived in the States. The eldest son was a doctor and the only daughter is a concert pianist living in New York. I don’t remember what the younger son does.
I got on the colectívo with a big sign reading “JACÓ.” Three and a half hours and one terrible nap later, I was in Jacó — the place I have called home for the past two years.
Living in Jacó hasn’t always been easy. The summers are hot. The schools are underfunded. The kids in my class are always working in partners to save on pencils and paper. Many of them only have a single pair of shoes to wear. Sometimes I’ll see a student wearing mismatched shoes, a sandal and a tennis shoe, one clearly too big for him. But I never say anything because my students have never once complained.
Jacó is a surfing town. Everybody surfs here. And in late spring and early summer, tourists from SoCal flood the beaches with surfboards and cash in hand. The Cali guys — los güeritos — stay in the expensive beachside hotels; they always have the newest, most expensive surfboards.
The güeritos surf on the private, perfectly-manicured beaches owned by the resorts. The Ticos surf on the public beaches — the sand, water, and patrons are looked after by locals. Few Americans — and even fewer güeritos — ever find their way to one of the public Tico beaches.
Jaimito taught me to surf. He’s the father of Carlitos, one of the boys in my class. Carlitos is a pudgy boy with dark, wavy hair and an infectious smile. His father, on the other hand, is lean and strong. Jaimito studied at the University of Southern California, where he had gone on scholarship to play Water Polo. He has some of the broadest shoulders and strongest legs I have ever seen.
After college Jaimito took a job with the government in San Jose — working as an analyst in the office of economic development. It was a good job, but Jaimito hated the work. He hated working in a suit and tie; he hated working in an office. “It was no way to live,” I remember him telling me. He saved as much as he could for six years. And then, after Carlitos had been born, once he had saved enough money, Jaimito moved his wife and son to Jacó — where they could live on the beach, surf when they wanted, and spend time together as a family.
Jaimito owned and operated one of the largest surfing schools in Jacó when I met him. He was a favorite among the güeritos because of his near-perfect English. But he was always fully-booked — at least, that’s what he would tell any Cali boy daring enough to ask him for a lesson.
The huge set came on the first week of May. Double red flags. Every surfer in Jacó stormed the beaches — if not to surf then to watch. Fourteen foot waves broke out in the water, crashing and retreating against the shore with deadly force.
Jaimito had been coaching me for over a year. I had surfed two big sets earlier in the season. The most recent time, I had even tubed for few seconds — before wiping out epically. As I paddled out into the empty waters that day, the memory of that wipeout was all but forgotten.
Thirty yards, forty yards.
When a big wave came, I dipped the nose of my board into the water, pressing the weight of the body, and emerged on the other side of the wave. I did this several more times, until I was sixty yards into the water and found myself face-to-face with a fourteen-foot wave.
When the wave crashed on me it broke my board — my lifeline. Suddenly I was swimming in the choppy water, struggling to keep my head above water. My heart, simultaneously sinking and racing, slowed time down to a ponderous crawl.
In that moment, everything was perfectly clear. I was going to die. I’d had a good life. I’d made some good friends. I might have even left my mark on the world by teaching some Tico kids broken English. Was this really the end?
No. I had to do something — I had to act.
I kicked my legs furiously in the eggbeater motion that Jaimito had taught me until my head broke the surface of the water. I gasped quickly for breath and yelled the only word that came to mind. “Ayúdame!!!!!”
My lungs were empty when the second wave overtook me. My insides burned. My arms and legs felt cold and tense. The powerful wave surge over me. As I kicked my way to the surface once more, I heard the faintest sound in the distance. I saw the light refracting on the surface; I could almost hear another man’s voice. Was this what death felt like?
Raúl saved my life. The only other surfer on the beach had somehow seen me and paddled out. As my head poked out of the water, I saw a hand reaching out. The skin was dark and wrinkled, covered in grey-black hairs.
I snuck in a quick breath and my head submerged once more. My legs ached with exhaustion. Using my arms, I pushed my way to the surface. The man was still there, resting on his longboard.
My Spanish was still shit. The man was motioning at his nose. “Respirá!” he said to me. Breathe! I grabbed his board with one hand and took a deep breath. My limbs felt rubbery and useless. I sensed another wave coming in the water.
Raúl must have realized how confused and exhausted I was. Without a moment’s hesitation, he ripped off his leash and tied it around my forearm. He jumped into the water and lifted me onto the board. He raised an index finger toward the beach. “Pateá! Pateá!” Kick! Kick!
Mustering up the last ounce of energy in my body, I kicked as hard as I could. Raúl clung to the back of the board, kicking with his legs, checking to make sure another wave wasn’t about to break on us again. Thirty yards from the beach, a small wave picked us up and carried us to shore.
I collapsed on the beach, my legs anchoring me to the sand. I wanted to kiss the wet sand at my feet but I was too exhausted. After a minute of catching my breath I stood up and hugged the mysterious dark-skinned man who had saved my life. I shook his hand and hugged him and shook his hand again. “Gracias! Gracias!” Words didn’t seem to be enough to express my gratitude.
A dozen yards away I saw something white and blue wash ashore. Fighting the massive leg cramps, I walked over and picked up the jagged halves of my board. The body was broken, but the leash and fins were still in good order. I looked at the stranger and offered him my broken board. What could I give to a man who had given me the greatest gift of all?
The man laughed and shook his head. He introduced himself as Raúl. He told me that he’d been born in Jacó and had lived here his entire life. It wasn’t the first time he’d saved someone from drowning — and it wouldn’t be the last time. Pointing to my board, he said something I will never forget.
“No, bro, those are yours!” He pointed up at the sky. “God gave you another chance.”
I moved to Costa Rica to teach English and live on the beach. Instead, I learned a little Spanish and almost died on the beach. But I was saved — by a surfboard, a friendly Tico, and a lucky streak as wide as the ocean.