I turned toward the sink and started filling it with water. My heart was pounding in my ears. How was a complete stranger having such an effect on me? At the same time he didn’t feel like a stranger, only like someone whose story I didn’t know yet. And what was his story? How did a redhead with perfect American English come to be a tour guide in Costa Rica with perfect Costa Rican Spanish?
He was beside me now. I glanced up and smiled. Ha! He was nervous too! I felt a little more at ease, knowing that the playing field was level. I reached for his plate but he stopped me. Instead, he took the sponge out of my hands and nudged me over to the rinsing station.
He then proceeded to Wash. The. Dishes. Ladies. This is huge.“Darling— can I call you Darling?” Touch me, please.
“What brings you to Costa Rica?”
What brings me to Costa Rica . . . well, I just left my husband of six years and a great new life in Spain that we were building together. I’m an emotional wreck and I told myself this trip would help me process everything without well-meaning but meddlesome friends and family “helping,” but really this is just one big distraction and I’m avoiding the fact that I have no idea what I’m doing with anything; my life, my career, my emotions—and I’m trying very hard to concentrate but these two large biceps just came over with their strong forearms and massive hands and together they’re all washing the breakfast dishes for me—
“Oh, well, I guess you could say I came here to do some research. I’m working on my Master’s thesis on how food creates and sustains culture . . . so here I am. Observing and working on a sustainable farm in the Caribbean.”
“Cool. A girl with her head on straight. I like that.”
“. . .”
“What do you do when you’re not observing and working on a sustainable farm in the Caribbean?”
Is there ever a good answer to this question? I never have anything pithy to say and I always sound like a complete goober who is still stuck in her “I like horses” phase. Case in point:
“Oh, I, um, I really like to read. I’m always reading at least three or four books at any given time. I run a lot. Love to run. And I go to the movies often. You know, the usual stuff. Dancing.”
I really like to read and go to the movies?! I felt like Baby in Dirty Dancing when she told Patrick Swayze that she carried a watermelon (*head-smack* “carried a watermelon?!”). I glanced over at this man doing my dishes. He had his weight on his left foot, his right leg gently popped out. He sat back on his left hip and stood up straight, dish and sponge in hand. Strong jaw; relaxed confidence; broad, strong shoulders. His large hands made quick work of the dirty dish and he handed it to me while he grabbed another. His movements were strong and sure. He wasn’t clumsy and out of place in the kitchen like some guys are. He looked like testosterone. Testosterone that could do dishes. And I had just told him that I was all but asexual. I fished around for some exotic or exciting detail to tell him, to differentiate myself from every boring schmuck on this planet. But before I could speak up he grabbed onto something I had said.
“Dancing? You dance?”
“Yeah. Well, I was on a dance team in high school [watermelon!] and I’ve taken some dances classes in college and I like going out to dance, you know, in clubs.”
“Really? I teach dance. Latin dancing. Like salsa, merengue . . .”
Now I was really feeling like Baby. Poufy, curly hair, awkward smile— the whole works— in front of a sexy, slick, coordinated, and slightly dangerous stranger.
He wiped his hands on his shorts and turned towards me. There are two universal kitchen fantasies that women everywhere harbor. As Andy reached for my clammy dishwater hands I realized that I was about to experience the actualization of both fantasies at the same time: dishes AND dancing.
He wrapped his arms around me and gently pushed me into a rhythm. Step, 2, 3, 4, Step, 2, 3, 4, Twist, Turn.
At the end of the turn his right hand caught the small of my back and he pulled me into his chest, close and tight.
I almost spontaneously combusted.
“Not bad,” he said, because there was nothing else to say.
Step, 2, 3, 4, Step, 2, 3, 4, Twist, Turn. He smiled as he released me, a hint of bashfulness tugging at the corners of his eyes.
“Yeah . . . not bad.”
Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod!
As we returned to our job of washing and wrangling the breakfast dishes I asked Andy, “What brings YOU to Costa Rica?” This is the story he told me:
In 1978 Andy’s parents, Maxine and Ruddy, left the cold, hostile winters of Michigan and headed to Costa Rica. It was post-Vietnam and they were as disenchanted with the political system in the United States as they were the public education system. Friends had recently traveled to Costa Rica and had recommended the tropical country based on its outstanding education system, beautiful, friendly people and its absence of a military. Maxine and Ruddy traveled with a few belongings and their two daughters, Daisy, 3, Martha, 2, and Andy at five months gestation. There are many unbelievable and even harrowing details about their voyage to Costa Rica but it is truly another story for another time, I promise.
The short version of the story is that Maxine and Ruddy arrived in tact with their little family and settled in the tropical lowlands. Over the next few years they met friends, learned Spanish, and learned what they needed to know to survive in their new homeland. As new additions to the family came along (three more girls were born after Andy) the family slowly started moving higher and higher out of the tropical climate. Eventually the family settled on an abandoned piece of property with a 200-year old homestead about 9,000 feet above sea level in the Talamanca Mountains. This high elevation meant that the family didn’t have to worry about mosquitos, ants, snakes, and other pests. And though the weather at their new homestead was chilly by tropical standards, it was a far cry from the chill of a Michigan winter.
The Seelye brood could hardly have asked for a better playground. They were surrounded by ancient virgin oak forests and lived just below the páramo, a high- elevation ecosystem that exists above the tree line in Central and South America. Homeschooled, Andy and his sisters spent their childhood hiking through the dense forest and racing horses through the bogs, grasslands and shrubbery of the páramo.
Over the years Andy’s family found themselves as the caretakers of the ancient virgin oak forest and the páramo; the kids themselves protected the forest from illegal deforestation by standing in front of heavy machinery, hiding tools and popping tires. Eventually they succeeded in getting the forest and páramo deemed as a special reserve with national protection. However, this new designation meant that no one could live within the bounds of the reserve and the family was forced to leave their beloved home. Having won the battle but lost the war, the family moved to their current location about an hour hike away from where they spent their childhood days. Soon after they left their beloved old home a vengeful neighbor burned it down.
The family began farming sustainably on their new 540-acre piece of land. As Andy grew older he began looking for work. A natural gabber and fluent in two languages he decided to try his hand at tour guiding. After a couple of years spent working as a tour guide Andy saw the potential for the farm to become a tourist destination. Enlisting the help of his sisters Andy began sinking every penny he earned into building The Lodge. Committed to sustainability Andy began harvesting naturally fallen trees to build with.
Today The Lodge houses Andy, his mother, his youngest sister Jayne and her husband Manuel. There’s plenty of room for the rest of the family, when they find their way home from their new families in the city, and there’s room for thirty guests. Guests are treated to wonderful homemade meals complete with homemade juices, cheeses, butter, and bread. The Lodge attracts birders, hikers, and others interested in learning how to live and farm sustainably and off-the-grid with hydroelectric power.
The shuttle boat for the group arrived later that morning. While our guests were busy gathering all of their belongings my friends and I were getting ready to go to a soccer game in Gandoca, the small town about 40 minutes down the beach from Punta Mona. The town was hosting a guys vs. gals soccer game but had to recruit the girls from the farm to help fill out the girls team— that’s how small the town is.
Andy walked over to us as we were about to leave. I took a deep breath, disappointed that our flirtations weren’t going to go any further and not quite ready to say goodbye.
Either was he.
He took me in for a moment, his face was very serious and he seemed to be debating with himself about how he should say what he wanted to say. I smiled at him encouragingly and he came out with it.
“The next time you’re in Costa Rica, we’re going dancing. I don’t care when it is— next week, next month, or next year. I’ll take you dancing.”
Step, 2, 3, 4
I glanced at my friends, embarrassed and elated. His attention was flattering but I doubted I’d ever see this guy again. I was kind of hoping he’d just grab me and put an end to the sexual tension by giving me a long deep kiss— something to tell my grandkids about someday. Something to keep me warm at night. But he wasn’t going to settle for immediate gratification; he wanted to draw this out.
I studied him for a moment; he wasn’t going to take ‘no’ for an answer. “Ok, sure,” I conceded, “If I’m ever in Costa Rica again, we’ll go dancing.”
He looked at me hard, he wanted it to be clear that he was very, very serious. “Ok, then. We have a date,” he nodded towards me, indicating that he wanted me to confirm.
Step, 2, 3, 4
“We have a date.”
To prove I meant it I reached into my purse and pulled out my little travel journal. I wordlessly handed it to him. He opened it to the inside back cover and carefully wrote his name, email address, and both phone numbers. When he handed it back to me I opened it up to a blank page, wrote down my own email address, and then torn out the page and handed it to him.
As we said goodbye my friends did the obligatory giggling and chattering and we turned to make our way down to Gandoca. After a few hundred yards I turned around to get one more glimpse of the sexy stranger who essentially just made me promise to come back to Costa Rica as soon as possible. Instead of finding him helping the students load themselves and their luggage into the boat, my eyes found him standing in the exact same spot I’d left him a few minutes before, watching me walk away.