Costa Rican Earthquake

–as remembered by Russell Guerin,
assisted by Vic Cieutat and his big black book

I have been to some wonderful places. Whether or not those places would be as appreciative toward me for visiting them is an open question. Over the years, I’ve been to many areas of the United States and Canada, and had a memorable two years in Europe.

While I was on the “grand tour” (the army had another name for it), there was a revolution in Hungary, but it wasn’t my fault. I’ve also toured some parts of Central America, including Guatemala and El Salvador, but had no part in any of their little wars. Some of my most enjoyable trips have been to Hawaii, Mexico, and Costa Rica. In the case of Hawaii, my visit was followed by the eruption of the volcano Kilauea, into which just days before I was able to look down into the crater. The beautiful development at the top – roads, museums, etc. – was all destroyed. I’ve had several great sojourns in Mexico, from the Gulf side to the Caribbean, one of the most memorable being a stay at Isla Mujeres. There, Vic and I stayed at Maria’s, a small hotel owned by Maria, who was a French chef. Unfortunately, that visit was followed not long afterward by a direct hit of a ruinous hurricane; Maria’s is no more.

Then there was Costa Rica.

That was in the days when neither Vic nor Russell were married, at a time when the penalties of aging had not yet caught up with our joints and muscles and travel was fun and carefree.

We never meant to start an earthquake.

It was April of 1991. Vic had traveled much more extensively than I, as it had been part of his regular duties of employment to live in many third world countries. But he had not been to Costa Rica, and agreed to my suggestion that we should see that beautiful little country. It was not exactly a third world type, as it had high standards of government and education, and a good economy. The citizenry enjoyed a higher literacy rate than we did in the U.S.

It was a peace-loving, independent country, especially as Central America goes. Its president, Arias, had refused President Reagan’s strong suggestion that the country should have a standing army; later, he was awarded the Nobel Peace prize for his efforts to mediate between the Nicaragua’s Sandanistas and the Contras backed by the United States.  Ten percent of its land mass had been reserved as national parks, including unspoiled jungles with exotic flora and fauna.

And it was beautiful and close.

So on April 16, we flew into the capital, San Jose. We stayed at a nice hotel there, The Hotel Amstel, and made prepaid reservations for our return later. The city was attractive, and we happened to be there when King Juan Carlos of Spain was visiting. There was a major parade, with police escorts, their sirens blaring, marching bands, buses for dignitaries and the press, and of course, a limousine for the king and his queen. But our real purpose was to go on from San Jose to see some of the less populated areas, and we had determined to go to the coast, to a little village called Cahuita. Vic’s notes say that it was 124 miles East of San Jose, on the Caribbean, and has Afro-Caribbean roots. It is populated by English speaking blacks with a culture and language different from the rest of Costa Rica. To our regret, circumstances were to determine for us that we were not to have much opportunity to observe these people.

Our directions were clarified by the chance meeting, on April 17, at a restaurant in San Jose with the Canadian owner of a small hotel in Cahuita, called El Jaguar. His card said that it was near the Cahuita Coral Reef National Park. (In retrospect, I think he had spotted us and determined to recruit us to his less-than-totally-occupied hotel.)  But that was OK: he was just doing what an enterprising person ought to do. His name was Paul, and he gave us directions and told us how to pronounce Jaguar (Ha-wahr’). He suggested that we rent a car and even told us from whom; I recall that he gave some idea of the price of a compact car and an example of the models available. He also mentioned a sub-compact, and Vic asked, “What’s that?” Trying to be helpful, I explained that a sub-compact is smaller than a compact. Anyway, we took his suggestion and settled on Adobe Rent-a-Car.

We rented a compact, a nice little red Hyundai, and a day later, on the 18th, we were on our way through the mountains toward Cahuita. On the trip, we came to a scenic overlook and parked the car. Vic went to the edge to get a good view, and I was still by the car when I heard the same sirens that we had observed in the King Juan Carlos parade. Looking back to the main road, sure enough, there was the procession – sans marching bands – including police escorts, buses, and of course the limousine. Naturally, I waved, and down rolled the rear window of the limo. A hand came out and gave me a most royal Bourbon wave. As no one else was present, it was to me alone, from the king of Spain.

Little could we know that the main road, in another few days, would be impassable and covered with rock slides.

And so it came to pass that we found, with some difficulty, the Hotel Ha-wahr’. It was just one story, although I remember that there was the superstructure for another story, should business ever get good enough to justify more construction. Our Canadian host, whose name was Paul, was the gourmet chef. He was married to a Costa Rican lady named Melba and they had an infant child. They lived in a separate building, on the second floor, the first serving as the restaurant.

The rooms were comfortable, and the hotel location was fine: right off the beach, full of palm trees that rocked rhythmically with the constant ocean breezes. From our windows, we had a lovely view of the green and blue depths of the Caribbean Sea.

I can’t say for sure what we did on our first full day, but it probably included a tour of the village and lunch at a local beach restaurant. One such place I recall seemed to cater to a counter culture group who wore their hair in dreadlocks. They may have been Rastafarians or something or other, but they were no bother. The place I remember was right at the boundary of the state park, and there were large vultures perched on posts by some garbage cans. They had their wings outstretched for cooling. They were no bother, either, but in retrospect, I know now that they were, without doubt, omens.

On Friday, April 19, we took a long walk on the beach of the park, probably for a mile or two, without encountering anyone else. We were hoping to see and hear the howling monkeys that inhabit the park, but did not. What we did see were many very large, orange-colored fiddler crabs. They would make our Mississippi fiddlers look like dwarfs. And they were fast, fast as lightning, it seemed. While we did not observe much wildlife (they may have been observing us), it was a gorgeous walk: natural, clean sand beaches, dotted with drift wood here and there, some of it rather large, like whole trees.

And speaking of trees, near the restaurant and in some other locations, there were huge dugout canoes that had square holes cut into their sides. It must have been that they had become no longer sea worthy, and so the holes were cut to make sure no one would attempt to float them.

By Saturday, we had made some acquaintances, including a young European couple, from Amsterdam, I believe. These we came to know as JM and Kirsti, and figure more prominently in the happenings described later in this story. They did not have a rental car, and were happy to be invited to ride with us. Some others, whom we did not know as well, also decided to take a drive, and so in two cars we made out way through some rough roads, more like paths, to find the Sixaola River, which separates Costa Rica from Panama. According to Vic’s notes, the purpose of this trip was to find a dugout canoe to go to Panama. I think we found the dugout, but no one to take us across the river. At one point when we were not sure of our directions, a young man came by on horseback. His horse was not saddled, and I admit that I was a little concerned since he was a stranger and we were indeed in a wilderness area. But someone must have communicated with him in Spanish, and we found our way to the Sixaola.

The river was picturesque, one photo clearly showing a man in a dugout. Maybe we had lost interest in going to Panama without proper papers or an assurance of a return trip, but we did not book passage. Panama lay an easy swim away and one of our group had the courage to take a swim. Frankly, she was kind of a nutty woman, and I thought about what Aunt Mimi would have said: “They’ve got ‘tings’ in that water.”

The following day, Sunday, we rented a small boat with a guide and went fishing. We used hand lines that we were taught to wrap evenly around a wooden holder. I caught at least one fish, a bonito, but nothing of consequence.

Probably that afternoon, we planned a trip down the coast to Viejo, but that trip was aborted. Perhaps it was intended as a fishing trip. I say this because I believe we had planned to go on a charter trip with some nice people from Seattle, Ray and Pat April. I remember that they had a pizza business with at least a couple of outlets. Ray was an outgoing type, bright and friendly, a take-charge sort of person. Pat was a lovely woman, very devoted to her husband. They had a daughter resembling her mother who was either doing some modeling or aspiring to do so. They proudly showed us a picture.

They wanted to do some real fishing, too, and so the four of us had gone to an office to book a trip, possibly to Puerto Viejo, just down the coast. The office was in a one-story wooden building, possibly at one time having been a house. This was on the 22nd. While we were booking our trip, at 3:05 pm, the building started to vibrate. At first, it was just a curiosity, but the shaking progressed rapidly, quickly becoming violent. Ray shouted, “Earthquake! Get out of here!”

We all ran out to open ground and lay down. Ray lay on top of Pat, later realizing that they were on top of a kind of briar patch. From ground level, I watched my Hyundai rocking back and forth, wondering whether it might capsize. The earth itself moved all around us, visibly undulating in moving waves. I believe the office that we had just vacated came off its foundations, but was not seriously damaged. Like houses in New Orleans, many structures were on brick pillars from which they easily toppled.

Other buildings were damaged to a much greater degree. Some were destroyed. Brick or cement columns marking a street or park disintegrated. Large, jagged splits opened in the earth, live steam pouring out in small clouds.

After a few minutes, things became eerily quiet, almost as though nothing had happened. But there was still some movement: telephone wires continued to swing, not back and forth as in a breeze, but up and down, giving evidence of continuing minor adjustment of the tectonic plates.

The roads in our immediate area remained passable. My guess is that we proceeded right away back to our hotel. I recall thinking that the phones may be working, and sure enough, I was able to bet two calls through, but only to leave messages. One was to Merle, saying that we had been in an earthquake but were OK. Then all phones went dead, but I think Vic’s big black book indicates that he was able to make a call or two subsequently.

Our hotel host was able to give us periodic updates. I think he may have had a short wave radio. We learned quickly that the quake was a serious one. Highways were not passable to return to San Jose, or to go anywhere, for that matter. Bridges – of which we had passed many to get to Cahuita – were out. (I seem to remember that on our way down I thought of the many small streams as being comparable to our bayous.) There were rockslides in the mountains. Electricity of course ceased almost immediately with the first shock. Air conditioning was a lost luxury.

Water could no longer come through the plumbing; toilets ceased to flush. We learned that our hotel’s water tower had collapsed, and were shown the old well, from which we could dip water with buckets on a rope. The water was not drinkable, but we were at least able to again flush our toilets.

The hotel owner announced that he could continue to serve two meals a day. He made it clear that he had ample supplies of food, including much dried food that did not need refrigeration, and that he would do what he could to find new fresh foods. He assured us that we had plenty of soft drinks and beer, which quickly lost their coolness, but we knew that we would not go thirsty for lack of clean water.

There were good people among fellow hotel guests. No one panicked or complained. Stoically, we had informal meetings to discuss our prospects. Most of us had come by rental car, and one young woman had read her lease. She was the beautiful girl pictured in one photo with a lobster. (She was down in the area in some way having been connected to a movie, I believe, although she herself was not an actress. She accompanied her middle-age mother, who was suffering from some malady, perhaps heart problems.) It was clear in the lease that in the event that she would abandon a vehicle, the rental company could immediately charge the value of the car to her credit card. I don’t think I bothered to check my own papers, as it really was a moot point: we had very little choice as to whether to abandon our cars, and all the leases probably had a similar clause anyway.

It must have been on that first evening that Vic and I drove around to survey the extent of the damages. We did see many small houses and businesses damaged or collapsed. My worst memory involves a little girl being carried by an adult native, possibly her father. She was holding him around the neck, not crying but evidently in shock. She had a compound fracture of one leg, according to my memory, but Vic thinks it was an arm. Several men speaking Spanish approached me. Vic remembers that they wanted to use our car to take her to a hospital, probably in Limon. We already knew that was impossible as the bridges were out. I still have deep regrets about this incident, not because we did the wrong thing in trying to tell them that what she needed immediately was first aid, but for what they may have believed about us. They were not insistent, nor were they pleading. They took our refusal very compliantly, seemingly to accept a division between us, but hopefully recognizing that they had to find a more immediate way to help the child. God knows, what we really meant was not simply an insensitive refusal. We learned later – I don’t know how accurately – that the men had passed her over the collapsed bridges and eventually got her to medical care, where it was necessary to amputate her leg.

For the first day after the quake, I don’t think that we tried to make many decisions, but instead just waited for news. Meanwhile, many helicopters were coming in from various places. We saw U.N. markings, and Panamanian identifications. Nicaragua sent Sandanista helicopters. (For those who are not politically aware of the times, Reagan treated the Sandanistas as our enemy, even mining the harbor of Nicaragua, and declaring that he himself was a contra. This was the time of the Iran-Contra scandal.)

Whichever country sent helicopters did not matter; they were all welcome.

Most of these brought medicines and medical personnel. A makeshift hospital was set up in a schoolhouse. One of our fellow hotel guests was a young physician from Germany who volunteered his services. He would work there all day and return to he hotel for the evening meal. As he spoke English, he was able to explain that after the first day or two the long lines of people needing care contained very few injured people. Instead, it was populated with mothers and their children, most of whom simply took advantage of there being doctors and medicines available in their village.

Our host was making good on his promises to provide two meals a day. Prior to the quake, our evening meals had been good, even surprising. For example, one evening, Vic came to me and said, “You’ll never guess what we’re going to have for dinner.” Ridiculously, I said, “Crawfish.” Vic blinked and said, “That’s right.” We did have crawfish that night, but not the way we were used to them. To begin with, there were only a few of them on each plate. They had been simply boiled, and were accompanied by several tasty sauces in small containers. They were nonetheless welcome.

The most memorable thing about that meal involved another German tourist. He was a straight-laced sort, not very talkative, always impeccably dressed. He tried to eat his crawfish with a knife and fork! He never finished them, Vic remembers, probably because he considered asking for those that were left. Though that gentleman had planned to visit New Orleans after Costa Rica, and though I gave him my phone number and an invitation to a free tour, I never heard from him again.

There was one really nice surprise when the evening meal on Monday included boiled lobster, which our host apparently bought right off a fisherman’s boat that day. I remember that he charged a little extra for that meal. We can depend on Vic to remember details of meals. With the help of his black book, it may be set down for all and all time that on the 23rd, we had “a good seafood dinner,” and on the 24th we had “surf and turf, the last of the fresh food.”

After a couple of days, discussion about getting out was growing more serious. Some hoped that the helicopters would start taking people out; in fact, there may have even been rumors to that effect. Others began negotiating with fishing boats to be taken to Limon, a seaport with an airport, and in fact some people did leave. At an informal meeting one evening, Vic gave wise counsel to our little group. He said that he had long experience in third world countries and that what we would find in Limon would be long lines with little coordination, and perhaps no food or anything to drink. At least, he pointed out, we had some meals and soft drinks here, as well as a place to sleep.

We spent those evenings in conversation with other hotel guests, the subject usually revolving around what to do next. Vic brought levity to the otherwise serious discussion one night when he said, “I think we should get our cars and form a big circle.” Judging by the laughter, even the Europeans must have been familiar with our old cowboy movies.

I believe it was on one such evening that we could detect a foul odor coming from the nearby trees. Apparently, there was a sloth close-by, but we never got to see him. It was maybe the same evening when someone pointed out that an animal was jumping from one palm to the next, some distance away near the beach. We could not see that animal either, but we saw the fronds of the trees sagging from his weight as he moved from one palm to the other. Those who knew the native word for this creature could not give an English translation, and so its identity is still a mystery.

During the daylight hours, we made the best of it at the hotel. We spent our time doing various things. A postcard from the Hotel Cahuita Jaguar boasted “nature trails on 17 acres of fruit and hardwoods,” thus encouraging us one day to follow a path through the jungle behind the hotel. It was beautiful, with lots of lovely tropical plants and flowers, but we realized that it would have been a long way to the hills in the interior in the event of a tidal wave. And there was reason to have had such concern, for just after the initial shock, we noticed that the tide went way out, very suddenly, and then came back in minutes later. This phenomenon was repeated several times, sandbars and even coral reefs alternately being exposed and then submerged again. (Newspaper photos later showed a previously submerged seabed with fish and an octopus high and dry above sea level.) It was at that point that my eyes began to scan the horizon, dreading to see a wall of water moving in from the distance. I observed the trees, wondering which we might be able to climb.

It was about this time that we were on the beach with Ray and Pat when we heard a voice yelling, “Help, help!” Ray, being younger and athletic, dropped his shoes and clothes off as he ran toward a young man out a ways and in trouble. The youth was able to recover just as Ray reached him, and they came in together. The young man, a European who spoke English, was shaken. He explained that he had simply been swimming in fairly shallow water when the bottom “just left me.” He must have found his footing again when the tide rolled back in.

It would seem that the above described phenomenon was similar to one recorded by Pliny the Younger in telling of the eruption of Vesuvius, which destroyed Pompeii and Heculaneum. His uncle, before he died from the noxious fumes of the volcano, had experienced that “the buildings began to shake and swayed to and fro as if torn from their foundations.” Pliny the Younger, who had stayed near Misenum, “saw the sea sucked away and forced back by quakes, leaving a quantity of sea creatures stranded on dry land.” (Great Treasures of Pompeii and Herculaneum, by Theodore H. Fedder)

We knew we would have to abandon the rental car, so Vic took pictures of it from each angle so that we could show with dated photos that the car had not been damaged. There was a suggestion that such cars be left in a parking area, which, I believe, was next to the police station. I am not sure where we left the car, but the black book records that we left the keys with the local police. We slept each night with our door open, in case another serious shock would cause our building to shift to a point that we could not open a door to get out. I kept things like my watch, wallet and other necessary things in my shoes, in case we had to make a dash out of the building.

Such thoughts were not just the product of worry. After all, later reports showed that there were 1,070 aftershocks measuring 3 or more on the Richter scale in the four days after the quake. We could not feel most of these, but could see telephone wires occasionally doing a dance. Cars would rock back and forth on their springs. Trying to fall asleep would be made difficult by the up and down motion of the beds.

We would later learn that the major shock measured 7.4 on the Richter, although it had been reported by The Tico Times as 7.2. Also, one report was 7.5, and Vic and I tried unsuccessfully to find t-shirts such as ones we saw around that read, “7.5 and still alive!” Anyway, it was a powerful quake with some powerful aftershocks, and it was close. As best as we could determine, we were only 20 miles from the epicenter. (An AP article in the Times-Picayune a few days after the quake states that it was 7.4 and the deadliest in Central America since 1986. At the time of publication, there were at least 79 dead, over 800 injured, and thousands homeless, but “…bridges and roads throughout Costa Rica were destroyed or damaged by the earthquake, making it difficult to assess the number of deaths or extent of damage.” A map pointing to the road between San Jose and the coast shows 12 bridges out.)

Our decision to try to get out in effect was made for us. Our host, who had made promises, decided to break them. It was probably on the evening of the third day that he announced that he would close the hotel the next morning and go to Limon. At this point, Vic and a young Dutchman named Jan Maarten (JM) – and possibly others – negotiated the hiring of a large open skiff with outboard motors to transport us to the seaport Limon, about 20-25 miles up the coast. JM handled the collection of the money, which Vic’s notes show to have been $300, at $15 per head.

I judge from the photos that the boat – perhaps named “The Pirate” – was between 20 and 25 feet in length. It had to hold 18 people, perhaps 20, judging from the cost.

Of course, there were little children, and we had all the luggage we had arrived with. The photos show several children’s car seats. I do not remember any life preservers. There was no way for all of us to sit down; for myself, I leaned on the gunwale and tried to hold on to something.

One of the families on board was the Fosters, from Vermont. Andy and Sherry had a sporting goods store there, and had come down in a rented van to Cahuita with their children, Ethan, Ryan, and Mae. A grandfather was also with them, and I believe he was diabetic and had run out of medication. Mae was only about two and still in diapers – when they arrived, that is. They had run out of diapers, and so little Mae had been potty-trained before her time. Good people, they were, and really good troopers.

I mentioned JM above. He was with his friend Kirsti Kessens, also from Amsterdam. JM held up well, and in fact did not mind taking a leadership role in getting us out. It was Kirsti, however, that showed an inordinate amount of strain. Most of us, I believe, were anxious for getting out, for a drink of water, a good meal, etc., but I don’t think we ever considered the privations as endangering our lives. For Kirsti, it was something else. One can plainly see the strain in her young, otherwise attractive face in several of our photos. It may be that JM had told us that she had a really bad case of diarrhea, and I wonder if she drank some of the well water.

We left at 9:10 AM. When we got underway it became evident that we could not hug the shoreline. There were coral reefs in the shallows, and therefore it was necessary to travel a good ways offshore. The boat had two engines, one larger than the other. There seemed to be a need to run only the larger engine, but midway it quit. I watched with amazement when the skipper and his crewman unscrewed the spark plug and accidentally dropped it into the water in the bottom of the skiff. When one dried it with the tail of his shirt, I began to wonder how long we might have to row. But start the engine he did, and we proceeded to Puerto Limon.

On the way, we passed a small island where Columbus had lost one of his ships.  It was to one of the little Foster boys that I pointed out the island, and I remember his father saying that would be a good thing for the son to remember for Show-and-Tell when they got back to school. Sherry wrote me a nice letter after they arrived back in Vermont and enclosed some of their own pictures.

On approaching the harbor, there were two or three ships – the ocean-going type – that were listing. What had happened was that the bottom had been raised, probably by one tectonic plate squeezing under another, leaving the ships aground.

The trip took one hour and twenty minutes, but Vic states that it seemed to take much longer. Arriving at the Puerto Limon wharf, we noted that it was buckled, large sections being out-of-joint, but one by one we climbed up, luggage in tow. Essentially, it was everyone for himself. There was no one there to help, no transportation, no directions. I know we walked a little ways, and then several of us hitchhiked a ride in a pickup truck.

One picture of the riders in the truck shows Vic carefully guarding a large dowel to go with his new hammock. What he did not guard closely enough was his Costa Rica straw hat which he “so cherished.” There was no desire to stop the truck for the hat; anyway, I still have mine.

The truck ride took us to the makeshift airport, passing close enough to downtown Limon that we could see ruined buildings, one apparently having been the hospital. Outside, people were lying on stretchers. We followed alongside a paved road, with open fractures in the earth strangely outlining the curves of the road.

I use the word “makeshift” for the airport because it was never meant to handle the volume – and maybe size – of the planes coming and going. Our photos show that what became air traffic control headquarters was the rooftop, reached by a ladder leaning against the building. Just as Vic had predicted, there were crowds of people, no one seeming to know what was going on. We were not allowed to enter the building, which I think was restricted to pregnant women and the injured. The first day, we took our place in a line, which did not appear to move, although it was evident that some people were getting out. (One whom I think got out was our hotel host, whom we had seen once, briefly, with his wife and baby.) The sun was out brightly, and it was hot, but we did what seemed to make sense. Of course, there was no access to food or drink, except that at one point someone passed around a bottle of water. (Perhaps Vic has a clearer memory of this, but I don’t think we partook, possibly because it simply did not reach us or maybe because we did not know the source.)

It must have been on that first day that we had good news. There was a young representative of the State Department who came up to us with a clipboard. He asked who we were, and upon looking at a list, informed us that he had sent a helicopter to Cahuita for us the previous day. We found out later that both Lionel Bienvenu and Roland had called the State Department on our behalf; how we were traced to Cahuita is still a mystery to me. We were assured that we would be getting out of there, but with no specifics; I think we were told to keep our place in line until further instructions.

That night, we found our way to a nice motel in Limon. (I do not recall how we got there, but Vic’s famous big black book records that it was the Hotel Balmoral.) The whole area was without electricity and fresh water, but they had a nice patio where we had a meal and hot beer. They also had a pool, which was a welcome luxury, as we had not had baths in several days. We were joined that evening by someone – my memory was the man from the State Department, but Vic recorded that he was Steve, the second-ranking person at the embassy. Vic got along with him well, as he had dealt with such people over his career. It was at that motel where Vic forgot his treasured hammock dowel, and for that reason he has been unable to have a hammock in his yard all these years.

The next day, it rained most of the time. There was, of course, no available shelter. It was either then or the night before, that the State Department rep told us that he would get us out that day, that he was awaiting a plane from the U.S. He explained that he did not want to create an international incident, and that we should stay in line until he called for us. He said that he would take all the Americans, and the Canadians as well. I believe we waited a few hours, all the while watching for U.S, planes.

When the time came, he motioned to us to follow him, and all the Americans and Canadians went through what I recall to be a side gate to the landing field. There was a C-130 transport, a big, beautiful pot-bellied job with four lovely engines, with markings of the North Carolina Air National Guard. When we boarded, one of the first actions for most of us was to get a drink of water, the first drink of water in five days. The plane was easily full. Seating was along the sides, with passengers facing the middle. But there would have been more room for passengers, complained our State Department rep, had not he been forced make room for the Jeep belonging to the mayor of San Jose, who had happened to be in the earthquake area when the quake struck. Naturally, the return of his Jeep took priority over a few other people getting out. So, there in the middle of this wide plane, was this strapped-in, chained Jeep. Right in front of it were two women, one pregnant, on stretchers, who were injured and being evacuated. I kept hoping that the Jeep would not burst its lines and roll forward in the event of a bad landing.

We did not have a bad landing, except that it was not to the U.S., but back to San Jose. From the airport, we caught a taxi and went to the hotel where many days before we had made pre-paid reservations. Unfortunately, because we had not been there on the appointed days, we had lost our reservations and our deposits. The taxi driver had waited, one of us staying with the cab, while the other went in to get the bad news. The driver was sympathetic, and took us around to another hotel. Vic waited while I went in. I well recall the feeling of helplessness when I observed a full waiting room of mostly elderly ladies, who I assume were all trying to register. But back of the counter, a young lady caught my eye, and realizing that I was not one of that crowd, asked if she could help. I asked if there was a vacancy, and upon hearing “yes,” felt all anxious thoughts leaving me at once.

The room was nice and even cheaper than our first hotel. We were tired, dirty and unshaven. For whatever reason, I think that I sat on the floor. Before doing anything else, I took from my backpack a semi-crushed banana and a melted Hershey bar, and we shared them. I had been saving them just in case we might have been in a circumstance where that would have been all that we had.

We called housekeeping and sent out stacks of dirty laundry.

Later, clean, I guess, but still unshaven and needing a haircut, I went down to the hotel lounge or restaurant, and there, across a room, was a familiar face. She came up to me and said, “Are you Russell?” and I said, “Are you Anna Belle?” I guess I looked a wreck. She was there, accompanying her aged mother, who was one of the group I had seen in the lobby. (Anna Belle is the wife of my friend Emile Netzhammer, the founding president of the Community of John the Evangelist and now associated with Sister Helen Prejean.)

In the town of San Jose, at the Plaza de la Cultura, we saw bands playing and raising funds for the people of Cahuita. That’s when we saw people wearing the “7.5 and still alive” t-shirts.

One important thing remained, besides waiting for an airline reservation, and that was to take our lumps about the rented vehicle. We were happily surprised when we walked into the office of Adobe Rent-a-Car, and saw that the two young men behind the counter were genuinely glad to see us. One said how happy they were to know that we were all right, as they had known that we had been in Cahuita. We explained our inability to return the car, and they said they would have to consult with someone to determine what to do. The answer came back soon as a question:  would we be willing to pay the deductible, which was $600? It was simple math that that was less than the value of the car, and so naturally we said yes. Later, after I was home, I called American Express and explained what happened. The first answer was that our circumstances did not fall under the provision that AMEX would absorb the deductible in the event of a collision, which I acknowledged not to be the case. But I went on to explain that the cause was not due to our negligence, but was an “act of God,” and that we surely would have lost or damaged the car had we tried to return it across broken bridges and rock slides. The AMEX man listened, and then said that I should write him a letter. I recognized that his request was tantamount to a positive decision, and so I complied. They forgave the $600. Even AMEX can act like a human being.

I guess the only thing left is to tell of the party that awaited me on my return. Our friend Mary Ann, who tended bar at our favorite meeting place, The Touche’ Lounge in the Omni Royal Orleans, had organized a group that included many friends as well as my daughters. Unfortunately, Vic had already returned home, and was not present. I still have in my china closet some of the decorations from a beautiful cake that Mary Ann had designed. I’m not sure who made that cake, but I recall she had taken the idea to the French pastry chef, Maurice, whom she quoted as saying, in his French accent, “I do not make silly cakes.” I suspect she prevailed upon him anyway, as it was surely a work of art. Divided along a crooked line into two uneven halves, the cake had little automobiles, houses and people tragically falling into a deep crevasse. On one side were green palms and a white beach, while across the divide was open blue water with stranded fish and other sea creatures.

In New Orleans, a party makes everything well again.