An Island in Costa Rica
Travel Stories: When she decided to spend her vacation volunteering at an orphanage, Tara Swords thought the kids would just need a little love to blossom. Then she met 5-year-old Catalina.
She visited on Fridays, so the first time I saw her was on my fifth day at the orphanage. Catalina had been more withdrawn that morning. She worked so hard at being invisible that I didn’t notice her absence until her 18-year-old mother appeared on the front step. I recognized her mother immediately—the heart-shaped face, shining black hair and pointed nose she had passed on to her daughter. But the mother was fresh faced, with bright eyes and pink lipstick.
I set out on a hunt. The tías of the house, the two women who made a living by cooking and cleaning for the children, suspected that Catalina had locked herself in the television room. A quick jiggle of the doorknob confirmed it. One tía worked a knife in the door jamb until the lock released and the door swung open to reveal Catalina, alone. She was dressed in a white cotton shirt and black corduroy overalls, curled into a trembling ball in the corner. Her face was wet with tears.
Catalina began to flail like a wild animal with its leg caught in a trap, screaming in what sounded like physical pain. The terror in her eyes was nearly too much for me to bear. But the tía, having completed her job, waddled down the hall toward the kitchen. Apparently, this task would be left to me.
I sat next to Catalina and put my hand on her back. I whispered that it was okay, but nothing was okay. She remained locked in a tight ball, unyielding to my words. That’s when I realized that no matter how much compassion I felt for this child, I was no different to her than her parents. They had professed to love her as they left her behind, and I, too, would leave her behind in just one week. The volunteers always left.
This bleak realization drove me to make as many happy memories with the children as possible—for them and for me. I learned quickly that Catalina was happiest on a swing. I would turn the swing around and around until the chain was twisted and tight. She would count to three in her high voice, suspense building with each number.
“Uno… dos… ¡tres!” I would let go, and she would giggle wildly at the delirious, dizzy feeling. ”¡Ay, qué rico!”
When I returned to home base in the afternoons, the other volunteers wanted to hear my stories. They felt their assignments were boring by comparison—teaching healthy, well-adjusted kindergartners basic English phrases or playing futbol with energetic boys. I told the stories. But I couldn’t make the volunteers understand how I felt at the end of my shift. How I cried the two-mile walk home and then lay despondent in my bunk until I could get myself together and join the others at lunch.
That first weekend, I traveled with a group of volunteers to Monteverde Cloud Forest to sail above the trees on the famous canopy tour. Suspended hundreds of feet above the ground with the sound of wind in my ears, I felt the delirious feeling that Catalina must feel on the swing. But I also felt shame for being there, experiencing life while she was trapped in hers.
The following Friday brought another visit from Catalina’s mother. It was also my last day. Two weeks had gone by quickly but had so deeply rooted this child in my heart that they could have been two years.
The scene with Catalina and her mother that day was made worse by the smiling, healthy baby perched on her mother’s hip. It seemed that Catalina had a little brother who was dressed in crisp, striped overalls and matching hat.
I tried not to judge her mother, a mere child herself. But as I watched them through the window, I found in me a trace of Catalina’s rage. I steeled myself for small talk and cordiality. But when I stepped outside in a jumble of competing emotions, my words dried up. I could only hold up my camera, eyebrows arched, and let her assume that I could not speak her language.
Her eyes lit up. Sí, sí, she said, as she tossed her long hair over her shoulders, displaying the Winnie the Pooh logo on her T-shirt. She lifted Catalina into her arms and smiled sweetly at the camera. Catalina’s head hung.
I wanted to ask so many things. I couldn’t.
I stayed longer than usual that day, afraid to say goodbye. Just after lunch, I pulled Catalina aside and knelt before her.
“Catalina, do you remember what I told you—that this is my last day? I have to go back home to where I’m from.”
“I don’t care,” she spat. “Go.”
“It’s okay to care,” I told her. “I care. I’m going to miss you very much and think about you every day.” How many times had she heard this speech?
She tightened her jaw and pulled away from me. But I couldn’t put it off any longer. I hugged and kissed each child, leaving Catalina for last. When I approached her, she ran. I had no choice but to retreat down the walk and through the front gate, leaving her to her defense mechanism. In her five short years, she had already become an island. The gate clanged shut, and my eyes flooded with tears.
I was 20 feet up the road when I heard her.
”¡No se vaya!” Don’t go.
She was running along the other side of the fence. When I turned, she stopped in her tracks and stood still, meeting my gaze. I couldn’t hide my tears but I couldn’t go back, either, because I could never make this right for her—not now, not in an hour. She had somehow enriched my life, filled my heart—but I would leave the same broken girl in my wake.
I took a deep breath and released it. I smiled and blew her a kiss. And then I turned and began the long walk home.