I grew up in the Eastern woodlands of Ohio. We didn’t eat much fish beyond the occasional perch and bluegill we caught in our farm pond. As an adult I’ve never developed a taste for seafood. Especially not raw seafood.
But maybe things are starting to change, thanks to Henry.
My first morning here in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, I was standing on the edge of an estuary channel that was obstructing my path along the shoreline. It was only fifty feet across. The current out to sea looked fast, but I’m a strong swimmer, so I started wading into the shallows, ready to dive in.
“No, senorita!” a Tico hollered, waving his arms, from a small boat upstream. “Do not swim! Crocodiles!”
That Tico was Henry. He beached his boat nearby, and we got to talking. Henry started working the sea with his father at the age of eleven. Now, in his thirties, he gives tours by boat and also hangs out in the channel, hoping to ferry people across. A dollar apiece, each way. Other locals have since confirmed what Henry told me that morning: The crocs in these parts can easily pass back and forth between freshwater and saltwater, and that channel is their main corridor between the river and the sea.
At that estuary channel there aren’t any nice yellow “crocodile crossing” signs for us ignorant gringos. There are only nice people, like Henry. Thank heaven.
The next morning, I hired Henry to take me north in his boat to do some snorkeling at Playa Carbon, or Charcoal Beach. (More about that place in another post.) Once Henry dropped anchor, we were soon in the water, outfitted with masks and fins. Henry also carried a small spear gun. That gun had me a bit nervous. Whatever was it for? Was he guarding against sharks, or sting rays?
Within ten minutes Henry had speared an angelfish and plucked some oysters from the sea floor. Then, apparently convinced I wouldn’t drown if I continued snorkeling without him, he returned to the boat.
When I finally climbed back on board, an hour or so later, Henry had some ceviche (raw fish) cooking in one of the oyster shells. To show me how he had prepared it, he shucked open a second oyster with his knife. “First, you look for the pearl.”
We didn’t find a pearl, but we did discover in the shell two baby shrimp and a tiny sea snake. After returning these to the sea, Henry scraped out the oyster flesh, retaining what was edible. He then added to it some diced raw fish and the juice of a lime. “The acid will cook it,” he said. “Five minutes.” When making it at home, he likes to add fresh garlic, cilantro, sea salt, and hot chili peppers.
“Ceviche is—how to say, in English—tradition in my country!”
I had my camera in my backpack. But somehow I couldn’t bring myself to take photographs while Henry was making me this gift. He served me my portion in the oyster shell, which I plan to take home to South Dakota. Because the shell itself is beautiful. Because the ceviche was very tasty, despite my woodland taste buds. And, most of all, because I want to remember Henry, whom I’d never have met if I hadn’t tried to go swimming with the crocodiles.