Fear of Falling
“Vamanos!” grins Moreno as he cinches the last of the saddles. He is the Costa Rican equivalent of the Marlboro man, all confident, handsome and strong. The ever present hand-rolled cigarette hangs from the corner of his lips. The five of us mount, depart from our friend Woody’s lodge, and head up the Escaleras Mountain road towards Cascada Nuayaca, the largest waterfall in Costa Rica.. The two hour trek will take us along the ridge and down the other side. Our guide leads us through a spit of primary rainforest, the ocean on one side, valley on the other. Our sure-footed mounts know the way and keep a steady pace as we get used to the feel of animal between our legs.
Adrian and I are showing our young friends Jacob and Van one of our favorite sights in the Southern Zone. After an hour of steep ascent on rocky, slippery trails, we need a break. At the crest we dismount, rest our novice backsides and grab a drink. I take a deep breath. We have become part of an idyllic scene of waves cutting over the shore of Punta Dominical on one side and of a thickly jungled valley on the other. We continue on our journey smiling and singing old cowboy songs to pass the time.
A wave of fear washes over me as the majestic double-tiered falls looms into view. I look up, expecting to see the tree falling on me – the one I didn’t see the first time, two years ago, floating in this same pool. It’s a gut reaction. My first time back here since the accident. I remember:
. . .
My daughter, Guiselle, and I planned a trip to Nuayaca, a last diversion before I returned to the States. We parked our car, crossed the swing bridge, and started the mid-day, sun-scorching trek to the falls, stopping at Lulo’s house to ask permission to access his property. Just a formality. He and his wife were always happy to pass the time of day with us and offered refreshment. After short respite in the shade before the final push, the friendly couple waved good bye. “Buen dia para las cataratas. Nadie esta alla hoy. Tranquilo.” We’d have the place to ourselves.
It was summer and there was no rain. The river was low. We descended through the jungle following the increasing crescendo. The falls stunned us; two long cascades, one 150 feet, the other 65 feet tall, spilling into two large posas, pools, one above the other. The spray covered us in cool mist. We slid down the rocks and dove into the icy water laughing, all shivery in our paradise. We floated around on inner tubes paddling and playing in the water. Feeling the ripple of a breeze high above my head, I raised my eyes. What an enchanted land!
A huge crack shattered the air over the rush of the water. Maybe dynamite or a big gun. Leaves fluttered down from the ridge. Then the sky fell. The sound was deafening. I was swallowed up, submerged by a green giant. I couldn’t find my way up or out. Arms of leaves grabbed me, held me under. Vines tangled and twisted round me. I couldn’t move or breathe.
Guiselle was in the middle of the pool when she heard the blast. Instinctively, she dove down away from the crashing, eyes wide open watching bubble trails of broken branches turned to javelins, bejuco gourds to bombs, exploding all around her. The trunk of the giant tree catapulted into the pool feet from her. A massive wave knocked her to the rocks near shore. She surfaced screaming, “Mom, Mom, where are you?”
I was struck dumb. Heard her voice, but could only move in slow motion struggling up through the water, leaves, branches and debris. To finally suck in fresh air. I yelled, “I’m okay. Oh my god! Are you? What happened?” I emerged from the canopy looking like a forest nymph; leaves, debris, and biting insects covering me from head to toe. No punctures, no slashes. Alive.
I took no risk that day, but I just happened to be in the very right place at the very right time, not the other way around. My marriage had been foundering. I’d tried everything to save it, to the point of losing my self. I made the break. The divorce was hard and learning to live alone after 30 years was even harder. Then Tom came into my life, a handsome curly-haired mountain man. A loner.
I found sensuality. It overtook me. I still wasn’t independent. All I wanted to do was be with him. He was not so overcome. He wasn’t interested in a committed relationship if that meant more than a few weeks together per year. “I’ll see you when I’m in Costa Rica, and we’ll get together for some vacations,” was all he could offer. I thought I could change him. I had lots more learning to do. It was still about taking risks. Hiding in my house because I was afraid another tree was going to fall on me, was not the way to go. That tree cracked me wide open. I wanted to keep it that way.
. . .
Because there is such a thing as a second chance, my memory gives the scene a mystic aura. I can feel every curve and point of rocks beneath my feet. The mist softens my face. The intense sounds become symphony. The sun-drenched cascades are glistening diamonds.
Young Jacob, long hair pulled back into a ponytail, slim hips barely holding up his surfing trunks, dives into the pool, swims to the edge of the falls, and begins climbing the rocks through the thick white lace. He urges me over to join him. “Come climb with me, Jules.” I’m still in pretty good shape for my age and he knows I like adventure. I look back at Adrian. He shrugs smiling, “Not me. I’ve got a kid to get through school,” and waves me on. I dive in and swim to the cliff of cascading water. Look up at Jacob about 20 ft. above me.
“Come on up,” he says. “You can do it. It’s such a high!”
“How’d you get up there?” I hesitate.
“Easy. Just step up on these rocks. They’re not slippery.”
I look up to the first plateau of the falls, behind me to the safety of shore. I turn my back on it. Gulp air. Go. One step. Another. Jacob holds out his hand. I have help if I need it. I don’t look down. The vertical rock stairs are almost higher than my legs can reach. I pull myself up. Take another step. I grab his hand to reach the plateau. My sturdy mountain-pony legs keep me steady. I rest. Sit with my back to the rocks halfway up the first fall. I can look out now. My friends look small in front of me. I feel big. Big with the pounding of my heart. Big with my eyes in the falls.
Jacob is my leader. I watch him climb to the next level and wait. I follow him. The next flight is easier. I do it alone. Reach the second plateau and the edge of the falling water. Again I look back and realize I can’t go back the way I came. Holy shit.! Maybe I’m crazy. I look past the edge behind the falls. There’s a passageway. Enough room to sit knees up. I look through the roaring sheets of water distorting the view to an eerie softness. Another moment to rest. Don’t want the inertia of fear to stop me.
The last ascent is the steepest and most difficult. Jacob eggs me on. I stand above it all. Fear is now exhilaration. Thousands of fire hoses on full force erupt below my feet. I’m so small. So high. So vulnerable. So excited. So afraid to jump. There’s no going back. Fuck!
“Yea Jules, you did it! Jacob cheers, “The hard part is over.” He sweeps leaves off the promontory hanging over the water, and prepares to jump.
“No wait! Don’t leave up here alone. I want to go first.” I yell over the roar. “What do I do?”
“Jump out as far as you can. Don’t stiffen up. You’ll be under for awhile, but you’ll pop up.”
It’s time. I step to the edge, survey the scene from my slight foothold midway up the falls. Water crashes below me. I inhale, exhale huge clots of fear. Somehow I loosen the grip my feet have made with the rocks. And jump!
I fly, hang, drop through the air screaming, arms outstretched. “Aiyee!” I smash through the foaming barrier, shoot to the bottom. Stop. Reverse direction and finally pop to the surface gasping. Ecstatic. Unconquered. Alive.