The sun poked its brilliant face through the clouds to shimmer lightly on the shallow waves, the glassy sheen broken only by a bulky form rising slightly off the sand with each withering swell. Manuel Angel marveled at the bright rays, the first he had seen in over a week. After six days and six nights of torrential rain it was nice to be out of the house flexing his taut muscles and nicer still to feel the sun’s rays warming his back. Staring at the object and squinting didn’t help. The sun slipped back into hiding behind the clouds as another wave rolled in and slid under the form. “It flexes like a body,” his heart quickened a beat. “But no; it’s too big to be human; a cow maybe.” Earlier as Manuel Angel walked down Barú Beach, he had seen a dead paca and a puma cub washed up on the beach. He continued walking toward the object.
A few minutes later Manuel Angel stared down at the bloated form of an adult male tapir, the first he had seen in half a decade. “It must’ve got caught in that horrible current in the Barú River and washed out to sea and drowned. I thought they were all gone,” he mused. “Maybe this is the last one.” The lifeless tapir was the size of a small cow and the shape of a pig with a sawed-off trunk for a nose.
The year was 1955, the month October. For the last week Dominical had endured the worst flood in history. The water rose slowly but steadily, and the rain kept coming, day and night. It went on until people began to wonder if Noah’s flood was happening all over again. Water reached within a half meter of Manuel Angel’s house on Hacienda Barú, occasionally sloshing against the pilings. The home was located near the Guanacaste Crossing four meters above the normal level of the Barú. At no time in the memory of those still living has the Barú reached such heights, and on top of everything else, the October tides were exceptionally high.
Manuel Angel looked up from the dead tapir and gazed down the beach. “There it is,” he thought. “There’s my boat. Thank god!” He let out a whoop and hurried across the wet sand, breaking into a run when it looked like a wave might pull the boat back out. Rushing waist deep into the surf Manuel lunged forward and grabbed the edge of the dugout, just before it slipped down the backside of a small, receding wave. The paddle was missing, but he had a spare at home. Manuel Angel tied a rope to the bow and began the long walk back, half dragging, half tugging the boat to the mouth of the Barú River and then 1000 meters upstream to his house. He figured it would take two hours to get the boat back to its mooring near the house.
“I wonder if the Red Cross launch will come today,” thought Manuel Angel hopefully, tugging on the rope. His wife Blanca, seven months pregnant, had suffered a severe relapse of malaria beginning the second day of the torrential rain. He had no other choice but to sit, helpless, and watch her suffer through fever and chills, first soaking the bed clothes with sweat, and then the other extreme, teeth chattering and blankets piled high. This morning, when the downpour waned to a drizzle, Manuel Angel left Blanca with the kids and went in search of the small craft that he was now towing home. Two days previous the dugout had been ripped from its moorings by the raging waters and carried out to sea. Now there was hope.
“Manuel, Manuel,” came the excited voice of 12 year old Daniel as his brother-in-law neared the house. “The Red Cross is waiting. We gotta take Sis now.” Manuel didn’t waste time asking questions. The tide was rising and would staunch the river’s powerful surge. He carried Blanca’s limp form, wrapped in a blanket, to the dugout, laid her carefully in the bottom, climbed in himself and paddled the small, unsteady craft across the treacherous river, ever fearful of capsizing in the tumultuous water.
They were met on the other bank by two Red Cross workers and a small group of villagers from Dominical. Everyone took turns carrying Blanca in a stretcher for two kilometers to Dominicalito and the waiting motor launch. The Red Cross boat had arrived a couple of hours earlier with food for the stranded village. Friend and neighbor, Consuelo Agüero, insisted on accompanying Blanca on her journey to the hospital in Puntarenas.
Manuel Angel and Consuelo’s husband, Mr. Tommy, bid them farewell and headed back toward the Barú. A light but steady rain began to fall. “Plenty of work ahead cleanin’ up the mess,” remarked Mr. Tommy.
“You got that right,” agreed Manuel surveying the aftermath of the flood. The forest along the river bank protected the village from the full fury of the current, but not from the water. The town was flooded for three full days. Mr. Tommy’s two story, 16 room Hotel Dominical had suffered extensive damage, and the main floor was covered with half a meter of mud.
After a nine hour boat ride on rough seas, in and out of rain, the two ladies arrived in Puntarenas where a debilitated and fever ridden Blanca was admitted to the hospital and kept under observation for one night. The next day Consuelo sustained her friend through a five hour bus ride to San Jose where Blanca would spend the next three weeks in San Juan de Dios Hospital. After her release Blanca stayed with an uncle in Escazú for another three weeks until bus service to San Isidro de El General was finally restored.
Blanca was on the first bus since the hurricane to make it from San Jose to San Isidro. During the seven hour journey she worried about Manuel and the kids. “God I hope someone came to help with the cleaning and cooking. Manuel can’t do woman’s work. How on earth did he manage with the two kids.” Arriving in San Isidro, Blanca learned that it would be six months before the jeep trail to Dominical was passable. Manuel Angel’s employer, Rafael Cruz, advanced her 25 colones, more than a month’s wages, for a flight to Dominical in a light plane. The small local company was called “Servicio Aereo La Danta.” Two weeks after her homecoming Blanca Valverde, in her house at Hacienda Barú, gave birth to a strong healthy boy, Rigoberto, her third child. Her friend Consuelo was the midwife.
The dead tapir that Manuel Ángel found on Barú Beach was not the last he would ever see. Two years later, in 1957, he shot and killed a tapir in the highland rainforest of Hacienda Barú.
[Author’s Note: The bulk of this history was recounted to me by the late Manuel Angel Sánchez and his wife Blanca Valverde. Manuel Angel was the foreman of Hacienda Barú for 18 years beginning in 1950. The basic facts are accurate, and the people are real, but a few of the details, such as thoughts and conversation included for the purpose of making the story more readable, are products of my imagination.]