“When walking towards the ocean, shuffle your feet in the sand to avoid stingrays.”
“Shit. That’s how Steve Irwin went.” I think to myself as I set down the laminated informational sheet left for guests of Ixchel Ostional, our AirBnb’d casita on the coast of Costa Rica. In a matter of seconds, my visions of carefree playing in the ocean transform into horror scenes of swollen toes, infected insoles, and a trip to the ER in a country where I don’t speak the language. I calculate next the hours of driving between us and the nearest legitimate hospital; how we’d have to ford a literal river and cross three bridges — two of which are seemingly on their last leg — in pursuit of medical attention. Unfortunately this doesn’t leave much wiggle room for risk. Then again, I’m the dumbass who picked a secluded location next to a nature preserve in a country I’d never been to before as the destination for our casual getaway — so perhaps I needed to simplify. Maybe I’d be able to find protective footwear at one of the small beach towns less than an hour away. Maybe I’d forgo the swimming part all together. I really couldn’t afford to loose any toes this week … per usual.
My mission for the week abroad was relatively straightforward: to spend quality time with my love Daniel and our dog Batman away from the hustle and bustle of NYC, to re-live a favorite childhood pastime of going to the beach and swimming in the ocean, and to recalibrate my life post-graduation from an intense masters program while writing my first book and configuring a clear direction for my career and the related overall trajectory of my future life.
By the third day I had experienced a small meltdown, resulting in the *obvious-all-along* realization that I couldn’t plan the entire trajectory of my career and future success in 10 days. And I decided to narrow the focus down to the basics — writing my 'sole story' and positioning my book.
By the fourth day Daniel received an email invitation to interview for a position that he was interested in — and our conversations naturally shifted into tactical approaches and hypothetical interview answers. He would prep over the weekend and take the interview via Google Hangouts from the AirBnb’s patio on Monday.
On Saturday, the sixth day, we made our first trip to the beach. I wore an old pair of gold Havaiana sandals the entire time to protect my feet from Stingrays as I busied myself with taking photos, picking up shells, and watching our 10 lb chihuahua-terrier-mix run in and out of the waves, having the best day of his life.
“Who needs swimming when there’s so much else to do at the beach?” Said my stingray prompted fear, as I crouched down with my polaroid camera to take a photo of my dog rolling around in the sand on his back.
On sunday, we went to the beach again, and this time I wore a swimsuit I knew would feel secure in the waves. I thought about swimming. But our trip was delayed and by the time we arrived at the shore the tide had dropped low — revealing an underbelly of smooth boulderous toe-stubbing rocks where waves had been just the day before.
“Perhaps another time,” I thought as I grabbed a stick to throw for my dog while quizzing Daniel on his interview questions.
Tuesday was our last day at Ixchel Ostional. I woke up early to finish typing my sole story and asked Daniel to read it over as he joined me on the porch for our morning coffee. “I love it. It’s so you … but it’s not really a story, is it?” he speculated. He was right.
New frameworks from school and months spent pouring over the psychology of shoes — paired with the entire anthology of 99 other brilliant, bold, incredible stories held firmly in my mind — had all resulted in an informed perspective and a well written piece, but it wasn’t a story. “It’s our last day to go to the beach,” I said, changing the topic before finally confessing, “I really really want to get in the water and swim once before we have to go back home to New York.”
“Did you see the note about stingrays?” He replied, not missing a beat. To which I shook my head yes while irrationally calculating whether my soon to expire student health insurance plan would cover prosthetic extremities if push came to shove.
The empty beach greeted us a third time as I diligently shuffled my flip-flop clad feet down the sandbar and towards the waves — my faithfully sunburnt boyfriend and beached-out dog by my side. But each time I walked into the waves, by about mid-calf, the murky water would begin to cloud my view of what was happening beneath the surface, adding ambiguity to doubt by completely removing the ability to see my feet. Plus the strength of the rip-current threatened to carry off my flip-flops entirely and leave me defenseless … and not only that but the loss of a flip-flop at sea would mean that I was responsible for littering plastic, into the ocean, mere yards away from a major baby turtle hatching grounds. No way Jose.
After a half dozen half-baked attempts with no sign of progress in sight, I turned to my sunburnt boyfriend and beached-out dog and asked, “could we maybe try a different beach?” … What I think many may fail to mention when recounting stories of courage and accomplishment is the fact that many times the gold medal doesn’t belong to the protagonist at all. But rather should go to the sweaty, sunburnt, beached-out wingman with zero interest in swimming who courteously nods before pulling up Tripadvisor and Google Maps on his phone, climbing back into the car, and silently beginning to drive. In moments like this I really don’t think I deserve him.
After an hour or so in the car we turn off the pockmarked gravel road and onto a narrow lumpy dirt one with thick foliage on either side that seemingly threatens to block the path with greenery at any moment — so much so that when a slight curve in the trail reveals overgrowth which brings the drive to a screeching halt, I’m not even surprised. Daniel turns off the car and looks hard at Google Maps as I struggle to find the adequate words. Just as I’m about to sputter out an attempt at an apology he looks up from his phone and says, “It should be just past this small hill,” pointing to the slight incline of land overgrown with lush foliage visible through our SUVs dirt-splattered windshield, “You go ahead, I’ll wait in the car with Batman.”
“Ok” I respond, filled with renewed hope, “just give me one second.”
With the added threat of my flip-flop foot protection falling off in the waves and no suitable water shoes in sight, I’ve been mentally working out a hack and that I implement quickly by taking four hair ties from my purse and cutting them to create four short lengths of material. I then knot this material to the back of of the straps on my flip-flops — two on each shoe — creating a makeshift elastic strap for my heel in order to hold the shoes on and in place. The result looks ridiculous but feels secure enough. “Be right back!” I spit out with a tinge of fake-it-till-you-make-it enthusiasm that renders my voice choppy and unnatural as I climb out of the car and treck directly into the foliage ahead.
Daniel was spot on. I step out on the other side of the incline and am greeted by the most gorgeous beach I’ve ever laid eyes on. Lined by a row of boulders which jut out into the ocean on the left side and a peninsula on guard-duty to the right lies a clear blue patch of ocean with gentle waves that a small handful of young surfers are paddling amidst. As I run up to the shore and begin to step gingerly into the water I find comfort in the fact that even at around mid-thigh level I can still look down and see my flip-flopped feet planted securely on the ocean floor through the waves — not a stingray in sight.
At just above waist level however, things get more complicated. I now need to balance my focus between the waves approaching and making sure that I don’t get hit by a surfer, which prevents me from staring down every 1.6 seconds to check for stingrays. In addition, the heightened strength of the waves at this depth are taking their toll on my makeshift water shoes and the heave of each undertow creates a painful series of distractions as the strap between my big and second toe digs hard into my skin; threatening to buckle their structure. I know I should just take them off.
Why am I so reluctant to lose my protective footwear when it’s become obvious that in this context it is no longer needed!? “Just let go, just let go, just let go,” I mumble to myself unconvincingly under my breath as one of the surfers — a barefoot, bikini-clad, 9-year-old — streaks by on her board; making my stubborn psychological need for foot security seem utterly comical. A snarky snort escapes my throat as I come to terms with the humor … yet I remain rooted in place, unwilling to make the next move. “Stay. Go. Stay. Go. Go home? Take the damn sandals off. Dive in. Just let go.” I repeat to myself over and over some variation of these ideas within the minutes that seem like hours while I stand inertly as the waves rush around me, feeling baffled by my own uncharacteristic incredulity.
Finally, a nudge from nature itself breaks the spell. A wave twice the size of all of the ones preceding it roars past me on a crash course for shore and with it sweeps the sandals off of my feet entirely. I feel each of the straps succumb to the pressure — popping out of their sockets on both left and right foot simultaneously — and I catch the resulting hunks of useless plastic in my hands just as the undertow aftermath wooshes past. Freedom. I smile. Freedom. As I immediately begin jumping headfirst into wave after wave. Freedom. I laugh as my fears dissolve in the sun-soaked surges of saltwater and foam. Freedom. My broken flip-flops clenched tightly in my hand by my side, their use as a measure of protection now converted into a reminder of the fears I’ve released and a symbol of the result: Freedom.