A Trek through Costa Rica: Part IIIA: Turbulence in Turrialba


The slopes around Turrialba, Costa Rica (photo: bidstrup.com)

Our SUV has become stuck in mud on a narrow jungle road for the second time this morning.

A few hours before dawn – before we’ve trekked across the mountain village of Turrialba to the office of our rafting outfitter – a brief thunderstorm had sent sheets of heavy rain pouring onto the slopes of the mountains, reducing much of the earth to dribbling brown liquid.

As the guides work to free the back tires, we struggle groggily out of the truck to stretch our legs on a dry part of the road, snacking on Clif Bars and surveying the scene below.

To the south down the road lay the low shacks and bridges of Turrialba. To the west and about a thousand feet straight down from the ridge, the two main rivers tumbling out of Costa Rica’s central mountain ranges – the Rio Pacuare and the Rio Reventazon – crookedly intersect, wriggling like a couple of long lazy earthworms washed out of their burrows.

From these heights the rivers look motionless and two-dimensional as photos, shimmering through a haze of evaporating fog and mist, shot through with mottles of bright sunrise. It’s breathtaking. And slightly intimidating. After all, in a few minutes we are scheduled to be on one of those rivers – the Rio Pacuare, one of the top rafting rivers in the world –  and headed into our first major Class IV rapid.

Finally the back tires spin free and we’re on our way again, bumping and roaring up and down steep jungle hills scattered with deciduous and banana and palm and the occasional wild coffee bush.

It doesn’t look like we’ll make our put-in time.


The Rio Pacuare. (photo: livingincostaricatoday.com)

Finally at the put in, we unpack our gear as our main guide, a short and friendly Tico who looks no older than 18, explains the situation.

Normally, he explains, they would do a test-run in calm water so that inexperienced rafters can practice pulling others back into the boat, and the ones being pulled in can get used to being in the water. Also in normal circumstances we’d all practice floating a small section of rapids in only our life jackets.

But it’s late – we’re behind, there are several other groups behind us, so the guide skips all this. Instead they just show us how to stay in the boat (by jamming our river sandals under the seat in the center), tell us to paddle like hell and “avoid the big holes”, and throw us in.

You can probably guess this is a bad idea. With the exception of my then-girlfriend, we’ve all rafted before. But our experience has been limited to predictable rapids in high desert rivers of no more than Class II or at most Class III, with few swells and no huge holes or obstacles in our way. This river….well, let’s just say this river is an entirely different beast. An angry, homicidal beast.

There’s a period of calm as we launch out in the shallows from the pebbled banks. The guide, perched at the rear with the steering paddle, goes over our upcoming route. We’ll be covering 18 miles of the Pacuare, with one break in between for lunch. Safety kayakers will be stationed to the aft and to the rear of us as we go.

This all sounds reasonable, reassuring. Less so when, seconds later, we’re shooting down the river toward our first Class III (made a Class IV by the rainstorm and the rise in river level), and I’m barely able to remain seated atop the side. It feels like I’ll be launched into the river at any moment.

We bang on easily through the first Class III even while straining to discern the guide’s shouted commands from the rear.  After catching our breaths, we look around at each other. Jungle birds shriek and chitter above us, invisible in the dense foliage drooping down from the canyon walls.

Is it supposed to feel this precarious? Why can’t I get a solid perch on this side? Should it be necessary to correct my balance every two seconds to stay upright even in calm water? Should I have bought rafting sandals in my own size, rather than borrowing my stepdad’s, which are much too large and already slipping off my feet? Am I just being a paranoid noob?

Then – BAM! A giant wave rears up bronco-like directly in front of us, towering over the stern of the boat, and the time for thinking is over. We plow directly into it.

We are aloft for a split, terrifying second, disconnected from the river, from the raft even  – I see the bodies of my companions beginning to float helplessly up from their sides as if gravity had become unbolted – and then we slam back down into the water at an indescribable angle, so violently that the whole front of the raft folds like a check mark. My neck pops and the teeth of my upper jaw crush against my mandible.

The rear of the raft pops out backward as it straightens itself out, flinging the guide’s body aftward. How his back is not broken after this little flight I still don’t know.


This is like us, but with way more time IN the boat (photo: Wikipedia)

We have no time to catch our breaths or even to feel elated. A giant hole looms ahead. I blink, can’t quite believe what the visual information indicates, blink again. The river level drops at least 10 feet in directly in front of us. A long, flat ledge of rock marks the edge of the hole, and we’re only a few seconds away. Too close to do anything but hold on and plunge into it.

All higher thought disappears from my mind. Cold terror consumes me as I paddle. The guide screams behind us, jamming his steering oar as deep behind him as he can without losing grip on it – “Paddle! Paddle! Left side! Left side!”

Abstractly I think – dude, aren’t you the one who is supposed to be calm and keeping us together? He is clearly losing it.

We paddle as instructed. The edge draws nearer like an executioner’s blade. It’s like fighting a bear, pulling against this current. But we slowly coax the raft to our right. We’re clearing it! We’re clearing it! I think wildly.

But relief is short-lived. In our haste, we’ve over-corrected and don’t have time to get straight. The back end sweeps around almost 180 degrees. The stern catches the flat edge of the rock.



Icebergs (Part I)

Icebergs (Part I)


1.  Two Icebergs

Promises at dawn
Amount to nothing, at twilight.

She waits, she does
through sluggish afternoon, air conditioning
traffic crawling below
And worse,
Doom and Fate and Old:
the terror of
drying up before her time

It seems to her that always
he is spent by the day,
Programmed for the ground
Dashed, torn upon the curb
an accident victim

The accident of his Life
Just confounds him

She waits, she does.

But just so
Sound replaces light
Motion replaces reason
Lust replaces motivation
Frost replaces feeling


2. The Frost

He is Sent out On an iceberg
Into the wide North Sea

No spear,
No fur
An expedition of one

In the towers
of the Trees
Crawling on bloody knees
he gathers the earth
in slabs of clay

Around his mud-streaked body
night falls
wind howls through corridors of fir
Snowladen and Black

A little further North
North seems right


3. Suites

Credit goes to the crazy ones
Checking in, Checking out
Of their private hotel suites

She is one of those now

From the plastic pink deck chair
from the hotel’s penthouse
suddenly she knows the shape of this skyline

They all slide back, the details
like a row of dusty books removed from a shelf
then shoved back in all at once

A suite of Useless memories
that may as well be lies

His bed was over here, And over here the closet

Where above the suits and ties,
sat old primary school shoes
And a flimsy diorama he had made as a child, of the solar system

Often she stared at the diorama in the early morning beside him
And wondered how they two had happened to collide
in all the billions of miles of Space.

She couldn’t say now if in that whole of that solar system
he still  existed anywhere

The solar system of faded crepe paper and cardboard
smeared with Elmer’s paste
Yellowed, decade-hardened;

She wonders where it is
She wishes she had kept it.

Greeschlyn Can’t Fail

words and photography (c) 2013 by Benjamin J Spencer

When will you move?

A new town is called for.

You have your neat grass,
Your dew drops (you reason).

Then again you also have your stinging flies

And your defeated people
who look into empty, empty

shop windows,

Rubbing their hands together.

this is why You must move to Greeschlyn.
Greeschlyn cannot fail.


Greeschlyn has the most artfully glass-strewn of warehouses.

Greeschlyn’s water is pure lysergic acid.

Greeschlyn is glazed with two centuries of baker’s flour and petroleum

Greeschlyn’s young are clinically insane
(And They find this instructive)

In Greeschlyn, you can fish for starlight in cold, salty puddles
And eat moonlight cake with shy pledge-drive orphan kids


You see

Possesses those things that can strum your nerves like a lyre

And peel the skirt right off your pelvis

Momentous things
Glinting things.




words (c) 2012 by Benjamin J Spencer

photography (c) 2011 by Benjamin J Spencer


Amarillo was the place
most aptly named
the harshest exposure of

The day empties
The light dies
Sand pours from my eyes
Carves my dreams in granite

Dreams carry
big animals

Cribs of white pearl
(thin, pink plastic mattresses)
on Threadbare carpets
Stained with
Grape soda,
Chip oil,
Beer water

The Corrections Officer paces the Supermarket aisles
Aisle 7: toilet paper,
dry, wrapped
In Pyramids
Aisle 11: aluminum foil
skin-ripping Teeth glinting Flourescent
He Scans down every aisle now – Faster
rising panic

In Twilit cracked Slab asphalt Parking Lots
Soft and silent drops the Snow
Splotching green vinyl seats
Through Rusted-open doors of Broke-down Mustangs

Amarillo was the place where
Our Road Trip
announced it’s eternal end
Our Metal frames
Drooped, exhausted, overheated
Panting and Hissing

In this Yellow
The hardest tone of Yellow

The Seal

words (c) 2012  Benjamin J Spencer

photos (c) 2007 Benjamin J Spencer

The Seal

He tries to stop doing this thing.
Reinventing himself.

But he is in the tide now floating out

They say you pick one life and stay within its borders
Its mannerisms and memories
Its committed parameters
Its field of options.

In this way you can find

He floats facedown now past the breakers,
staring into his future
Toward bottom.

He supposes he must learn to breathe in what is down there
In that cool expanse below
And let it calcify him
He will stick with the scuttling crayfish
And let their curling tails drag across his face
And watch his sides slicken with algaes
And let the gravel nibble his surface to chalk

In time he will be a smooth, wise head
They would call him teacher…
Master, maybe

But who to revel?
His sainted mother GodRestHerSoul? No.
Better to float.

How many have offered him poles? Ropes and Preservers?
His preferred state is submersion,
They couldn’t have known.

Long ago at the shore
a riptide tugged at him
and his feet dragged free from flat sand
He saw them rise in front
His toes surmounting the rolling swells
Which made of his body a mere bauble rising and falling on the sea

He expelled from his lungs all of the oxygen
Every last bit.
and sank under.
In the second before blackness
Fear and attachment
kicked his nearly-dead weight up to the air

Why he tested his mortality in this way he could not say.
Only he believed that part of him
still tied to the land and the air
To be already dead

And it distressed him to need them so.
All of them
All of those scrabbling people
Fucking and killing and fucking and killing upon little scraps of

While he
A Seal

Sealed in self-nourishing layers
of Fat
and skin

Snout and whiskers to navigate

Now abreast in cold wild waters,
Now hovering off of golden shorelines

A myth that the world only half-believes in.

For Benji



And that is why we are related.

You said this one time
(In the storm-swept winter,
in the era when when we two
– on any night –
could be found
running through the dirty snow
in your neighborhood).

We are related, it’s true,
But not as we would wish.

One like the red moon streaming
Through night-old pines
Illuminating the wanderings
of the night creatures
Fueling the wet respiration
that climbs from the forest floor
upon a ladder of boughs
to the atmosphere

The other chalk dry
like a faded wooden raft
bleaching in the heat of noon
half-sunken at a lake’s edge
A still life
A postcard sent long ago
To a dead-letter address

One burning through their third booster
toward the sucking lip
of our fragile world,
Seeking to Transcend

The other sinking off into silence
Slumbering with the old, red Earth
but forgotten underneath
The crush of life

10.18.2004 – The Ramstein Air Show Disaster – Original Essay


A Tribute/Parody of Daniel Defoe’s “Journal of the Plague Year”

by Benjamin J Spencer

WITH THIS DOCUMENT, or rather, testament, I will attempt to recreate for you, dear reader, the specific circumstances involved in the horrible disaster which occurred upon the date of 28 August, 1988, at Ramstein Air Force Base near the town of Frankfurt (in what was then West Germany).

This is but a poor account of a day of indescribable horror, and may I never live to experience another of its like.

I arrived at this base – which is to this day still regarded the center of European operations for the United States Air Force under the grand tenets of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization – as I say, I arrived at this base in rather high spirits, as the annual Flug Tag, as the Germans say, was about to begin.

And truly it had promised to be a rather exciting display of aerial acrobatic prowess. A number in excess of 300,000 spectators, whether military or civilian in appointment, eagerly awaited the opening flyover of jet aircraft, a customary commencement ritual at the annual event.

My military designation was as a sometime civilian contractor, and as a consequence I was not chosen to join the gathering of officials and dignitaries seated in ascending rows of bleachers, apart from the general population. I stood instead in the commoner’s area near the landing strip (though this unsuitable arrangement did not overly offend me, as I strive always to remain a keen and unbiased Observer of Humanity in all its God-given variety, hue and temperament.

Predictably, though – and I might add disagreeably – the hapless poor had heaped themselves in large closely-packed throngs, squirming, braying at a deafening level, consuming great excesses of beer and spirits, and in general behaving with that minimum of social decorum which all such classes are wont to do.

I daresay that if they had been less eager to press themselves together and intemperately gorge on spirits, thus shamefully impairing their faculties, perhaps the effect of the disaster might not have been so dire.

The poor simple souls! They cannot be fully blamed for their ignorant and passionate natures.

* * * * * * * * *

The day was gauzily overcast but otherwise quite fine. Low forested hills arose behind the grey asphalt of the landing road.

Presenntly the opening jet formation flew directly over the heads of the spectator, occasioning great roars of jubilation from the crowd. The show was begun.

The multitudes were held rapt as the daring  jet aviators flipped, twirled and banked in effortless unisonin one moment swooping gloriously upward into the heavens, the next tumbling into a precipitous dive toward the Earth, avoiding the inflexible impact of death with mere inches to spare.

Now, the most spectacular display involved nine Italian Air Force jets, collectively know as Frecce Tricolori, viz., the Tricolored Arrows in the fanciful manner of those blessed to live in the fairer regions of Europe.

The Tricolored Arrows rocketed in unison over the crowd. But, as these nine planes were aligned in a heart-shaped formation perpendicular to the ground, all flying at low speed, one of the pilots suddenly broke away from the rest to perform a complicated maneuver.

During the first moments of the exhibition, murmurs of awe arose as one from the assembled, and all faces, tilted unswervingly as they were at the sky, at once betrayed the very type of boundless admiration and respect for these noble airmen as might be accorded by any mortal to a cadre of heavenly hosts dropped down for a visit.

But now, as this one Arrow broke away, arrived the moment that would immediately transfigure each benignly wondering visage into an open-mouthed mask of terror.

For unbeknownst to all in the crowd, this plane – which had in a manner sheared away from the rest – had dipped too closely to the ground, and the pilot was , it to retain control of his craft. No doubt owing to sheer confusion, the hapless airman suddenly corrected his flight in the exact opposite direction – directly into the flight paths of the two other fellows beside him.

All sound seemed to cease in the seconds before the terrible moment of collision. And then – chaos!

From my vantage point near the runway, it appeared as if somehow, fantastically, in that paralyzed instant, all three planes literally imploded into the same tiny point of space and fused into one mass of metal: but then the moment was spent, and the laws of physical intertia regained their awful, inexorable power. 

Two of the craft tumbled harmlessly down the runway, molten together into a pulsating ball of orange flame and twisted steel. But the third jet’s trajectory became immediately, horrifyingly clear to all.

This massive jet fighter ricocheted off the ground, then sailed, screeching over the blacktop and directly toward the crowd presently surrounding a concessions vehicle.

The great steel behemoth catapulted and slid across the broad field for a distance of not less than fifteen hundred meters before coming to rest against the vehicle; yet its velocity and power were so tremendous, not enough time remained to these poor souls even to scream: the flaming jet was upon them.

* * * * * * * * *

It would not be seemly to dwell upon the miseries inflicted upon the dead or the injured that day.

But I can faithfully report that the accident occurred within so brief a span of time – as I was told later, only three seconds elapsed between the collision and the deadly landing – and the flames so hellishly hot – nearly 1600 degrees Fahrenheit – that few human observers had a reasonably chance to flee the scene even though they watched the whole catastrophe.

70 persons died either instantly or shorty following the crash. But several accounts have been revealed to me that I have been assured are true in relation to some of the 500 survivors at the site – which covered a large area owing to the flaming debris shooting out from all directions, and which smoked and smoldered for several hours afterward as brave rescuers endeavored mightily to preserve as many lives as possible.

One of the most fantastical accounts related to me tells of a woman who had been standing near the jet when it first impacted the ground.

As the jet pierced the soil, its massive bulk  plowed up a giant ramp of earth, which promptly buried the woman and buffered her from any further harmful effects of flame or heat. The plane then ricocheted aloft once again, and she was found – thanks to that almighty Hand which spares us all – frightened but very much alive soon after the rescue efforts began.

Regrettably, the great majority of survivors had not the same protection, and several wandered from the field naked, disoriented or otherwise in shock, and burned over much of their bodies, only to be discovered and treated by observant medical workers – may of whom had arrived on the scene mere seconds after the disaster and who pulled countless wounded back from the jaws of death.

Others of the disoriented survivor would not wait for help, rashly clambering into vehicles and attempting to transport themselves and their family members off the base in order to reach medical centers, and even in some cases appropriating government or military vehicles and exiting the grounds before they could be prevented by authorities.

* * * * * * * * *

In spite of the overwhelming scale of the disaster, the physicians of the emergency service and the helicopter rescue teams performed outstandingly well, and though the hospitals surrounding the Ramstein Air Base fairly overflowed with patients suffering from the most grievous and life-threatening of injuries, a great many of those showered with debris survived and went back to their lives out in the wide world.

As for this observer, however: I am of the opinion that no amount of soothing treatment may ever be able to fully expunge the bitter memories from the minds of those who witnessed the event.

I can only be grateful to that merciful One who saw fit to preserve me safely in this world for the other tasks He has appointed to me.