After a delightful read through over 300 of your quality submissions, we finally made the arduous decision of selecting a winner. Congratulations to East Coast surfer Christopher Beach for winning the SURFER Writing Contest, with his short story about a chance encounter in Costa Rica. His piece caught our collective eye, and we will be sending the author on an all-expenses paid editorial trip with a group of pros. Without further ado, here is the writing competition’s winning submission:
The Traffic Guard
By Christopher Beach
If you’re traveling by bus from northern Costa Rica to Playa Hermosa or any point south of that, your route will take you to the port city of Puntarenas, known by surfers for its fickle river mouth break that spits out one of the longest lefts in the country.
To distract visitors from the city’s disfigurements, the bus stops in Puntarenas are strategically located across the street from the beautiful Pacific Ocean. Here I stood next to the main calle and under a small half concrete-half scrap metal, lean-to bus stop with destinations and distances painted on cinderblocks in eye-catching colors.
As is the case for many buses in Costa Rica, you pay when you get on the bus, or else there is a sign that points you to a terminal to buy a ticket. Not so for the bus from Putarenas to Hermosa. All the gringos and tourists stand in line waiting for the bus, take one step onto the bus, only to get a rude awakening from the bus driver who yells that you can’t get on the bus without a ticket. So you ask him where to buy a ticket and he points you three blocks down the street. By the time you’ve ran and bought your ticket the bus is long gone.
So I introduce you to Robert, the resident traffic guard. He makes his living by standing at the bus stop and helping tourists get tickets, who in turn tip him 100 or 200 colones. Not a bad life for an alcoholic bum.
This being our first time through Puntarenas, my friends and I stood at the bus stop without a ticket or even knowing where to buy one. Robert approached us and in perfect English told us we needed to go buy a ticket down the block. Naturally, we tried to ignore him; he smelled of last night’s trash and looked even worse. But hearing his distinct Midwestern American accent, I turned and listened to him. Turns out he was right and the first Costa Rican gutterpup I took advice from.
After tipping Robert way more than I should have, he insisted on helping us carry our board bags to the bus.
“Ya know what?” he blurted. “People normally tip me like…100 colones…but you, you man, you gave me like a thousand. Do you know what that means? That means I can buy breakfast today. Thank you, man.”
Rubbing his newfound fortune over and over in his hands, Robert felt compelled to share more.
Sixteen years ago he was a construction engineer in Chicago. On a whim, he ventured to Costa Rica on vacation. Once he was there, he quickly realized that this nascent Third World country was paradise for a middle-class American. The cocaine was cheap and the women were cheaper. So Robert dropped his 40-hour workweek in Middle America and moved to Costa Rica. In less than a year, he became a full-blown cocaine addict and dealer, one of the first “cocaine cowboys” of Costa Rica.
He paused for a moment, choked back a sentence and skipped ahead. “Today,” Robert explained, “I’ve been four years without drugs.” You would think that was a remarkable recovery until you saw him in his current state. His skin is dark, leathery, and wrinkled and he looks 20 years older than he probably is. He wears cut-off jean shorts, ratty open-toed sandals, a dirty gray V-neck T-shirt, and a bright yellow traffic guard bib that he probably found in the trash. It helps distinguish him, the traffic guard, from the other vagrants and bums who roam the local bus stops.
Robert reeks of alcohol and cigarettes and whatever else was in the gutter he woke up in. He hasn’t shaved in months and his beard is a vapid combination of aging white and grey and sun-bleached blonde.
“Ya know, man, I’ve been four years without drugs. Now I just got my cigarettes and alcohol. Ya know, if I can get enough money to buy some cigarettes and a little guaro, I’m happy. That’s all I need, some guaro, a couple cigarettes, and maybe a beer. I like a beer from time to time, too.” He paused to smile, probably the first time he’s done so in a long time.
“And after that, if I can afford some breakfast, I’m happy man. You know you made my day, man. Thank you.”
As the bus pulled away and Robert faded back into the slums, I couldn’t tell if I had just committed the wicked sin of “giving money to a drunk” or if I had actually made this poor soul happy.
While we spent our summer days in the shade of Costa Rica’s best A-frame beachbreak barrels, Robert hid from the beating sun under the shade of Costa Rica’s grungiest bus stops.
We couldn’t be further apart in life, but for one coincidental meeting, we shared a glimpse of each other’s world. Mine a world he once knew, and his a world I never want to know.
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