I sat silent and introspective on one side of the motorized boat taking us down the river. Below us, the dirty water sloshed dark and brownish, and above us, rain fell from the purple clouds, which occasionally burst to life with lightening, followed by the throaty growl of thunder. Other boats traversed the river that night, but not nearly as many as during the daytime.

It didn’t even feel like we were on earth anymore.

“It’s like a Ghibli movie,” one of my classmates remarked quietly from the other side of the boat, gazing out the transparent plastic covering keeping us dry.

I smiled. Yes, it was exactly like a Ghibli movie, that sense of fantasy and wonder, of gorgeous landscapes and storylines that leave much for the viewer to discern. This landscape spoke strongly of something, but all I knew was that it spoke. I couldn’t understand what it said.

Before long, we dismounted on a grassy spit of land near the beach, where the green sea turtles would be coming up to lay their eggs. Hopefully we would see one. We waited near an abandoned airstrip—a wide expanse of cement extending into the humid darkness, under the surreal expanse of luminescent thunderheads.

At the near end of the airstrip a small, silent building kept us from the rain. A skeleton of cement, without doors or windows. There was a stone bench or two, large rectangular extensions of the wall.

We waited a long time for the scout to spot one. During that period, we saw a large, colorful frog, some huge locust sort of thing, and an unfortunate opossum, who found itself surrounded by another group of tourists (while I stewed in indignation on the other side of the building.)

The guide talked quite a bit, and asked us all sorts of questions in a mix of Spanish and English. He posed a scenario to which there were two answers. When it came my turn to speak, I ended up giving the answer no one else had chosen. Unexpectedly, he jumped on it, pressing me to explain myself. In Spanish. Needless to say I choked. I thought I had said something wrong or offensive or horribly ignorant. But no, not really. The answer I provided for the scenario was true for some seasons, and very valid. But perhaps because I had answered differently, he kind of picked on me the rest of the night.

And we all know how I love standing out…

Finally, the scout rematerialized with good news, and we ventured out over the wet grass and onto the sand. We walked down the beach a bit, the dark sand bleached purple and gray by the storm. In the lights flashing in the clouds above, I spotted the green sea turtle retreating back into the ocean—large round shell, heavy flippers moving over the sand, head faced only toward its destination, as if nothing else mattered. The guide thought it must have been a young one, as they are more easily spooked, or they fail to lay their eggs properly.

I stood awestruck as I watched her retreat. I kept reminding myself I really was standing there. In Tortuguero, in Costa Rica in the middle of a thunderstorm, reasonably close to a creature I had never met in real life. I looked out on the sea, turbid ink stretching forebodingly to the horizon. I tried to take it all in.

What it said, what it meant. What I was supposed to do with the sheer overwhelming fascination beating in my chest. I couldn’t wrap my head around any of it.

And even a year and a half later, I still can’t.

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