In the morning, when Helen opened her cabaña door, the dog was standing beside it. She was surprised. She’d seen him on the beach but never around the cabaña. He moved away when she came out, but not far, and he didn’t back off when she said “hello doggie”. She walked on, heading for the indoor café across from the beach where she could get café con leche. She needed air-conditioning and white tablecloths to help her think about being on holiday alone, with her limited Spanish.
In the restaurant she dawdled, pouring the hot coffee and hot milk from their small covered pots into her cup only a bit at a time to keep the liquids hot as long as possible. She ordered more and a sweet roll. It had been easy, with Robin as translator, protector and all things male and acclimated. But Robin had gone to San José the previous afternoon. He had work to do, and she’d meet him in four day’s time. Before he’d left, the thought of being here alone was exciting. She knew more Spanish than she had last year when they were here. She knew the beach and the sea, she knew the café vendors that spoke English. She knew the trails and picnic spots in the parque nacionale that bordered the public beach. It was the best place to test her Español sea legs. It was still scary though, knowing there was no Robin to provide backup.
Even accustomed as they were to turistas soaking up the cooled air of their restaurant, the waiters began pointedly glancing in her direction. They were replacing tablecloths, setting up for lunch, wanting to clear her table. She finished her coffee and took a deep breath as she went outside, to the heat and the linguistic challenges waiting beyond the anglicized environment of the café.
Close to the door but far enough away from anyone taking exception to his presence sat the dog. When he saw Helen, he stood up and gave one wave of his long tail. “Hello again, what are you doing here?” He didn’t move away, but she didn’t want to push her luck by going near him so she walked back toward the beach. The dog followed a couple of paces behind.
From his belly up, he looked like a perfect German Shepherd in head and ears, colouring and body shape. It was only his legs that made you wonder about the other part of his parentage: short little Corgi legs. He’d hung around her and Robin the past couple days, but wouldn’t come near. They had put bits of food down for him. He wouldn’t go near it until they stepped back. There were many stray dogs on the beach, some quite ferocious looking. Most came to the beach only at dusk, foraging for food people had dropped. This one hung around in the day too and looked like he should be someone’s pet. No, un perro de la playa – a beach dog – they were told. He likes the tourists, they feed him. Helen started ensuring she had a bit of leftover from any meal. This morning, when it seemed he was changing the terms of their relationship, she’d forgot to save any of her sweet bun.
She crossed the road to the beach and walked the length of it, the dog closing the distance until he was at her heel. She turned to him and put her hand out. After a minute, he sniffed her palm. “So, we’re friends?” He licked her hand. She ruffled his large pointed ears. “Hola, perrito, mi amigo.” He wagged his tail.
They walked on, side by side. She bought a pop and sat at a picnic table to study her language book. The dog lay beside her under the table. A boy came to clear tables. He saw the dog. He said to Helen in English, “The dog bothers you?” and jumped to shoo him away. The dog didn’t move, just sat up alongside Helen’s leg. “No, no, he’s fine. He’s with me.” The boy looked amused and went back to the stall. Helen saw him talking to his boss. A while later, he came back with a paper plate of meat scraps and plantain chips. “Here, he like this.”
Everywhere she went that day, the dog went with her. Some of the beach concessionaires smiled to see them, some asked if he was annoying her. None seemed surprised that he’d attached himself to her.
Helen had dinner at the thatched-roofed restaurant beside her cabaña. She ordered a full meal, so she’d have mucho leftovers for Perro who lay under her table. Clearly, he’d defined his job – to protect her. She was learning hers – to provide for him while he was in her employ. They went back to Helen’s cabaña, with the leftovers. Perro waited outside but came in when he saw Helen putting the plate on the floor. Perro had his dinner and slept on the floor at the end of Helen’s bed. Next morning they went to an outdoor beach café for breakfast. Perro lay under Helen’s table and nothing was said about his presence by the proprietor or the boy waiting tables.
Helen wanted to swim. She had her bathing suit on under her sundress and contact lenses in. She had a towel, a novel and sunscreen in a tote bag. She hoped it was safe to leave it on the beach. She and Robin had, but it’s different when you’re alone. Different for you and perhaps for thieves. But she had no choice if she wanted to swim. She preferred to not wear contacts in the water. In surf like this, big Pacific rollers, a near-sighted person is challenged. Contacts can be torn out, glasses can be ripped off. The options are wade sighted in the shallows or go blind into the surf. Helen usually chose blind but this time decided good sight was better, to see what Perro would do and if her bag was left alone. She hoped he would prove useful as a guard dog. It was a faint hope; Perro was surely on closer terms with the local thieves than with her. If she stayed close to shore, she could have a brief swim and keep an eye on her gear. She headed to the water, and Perro came right behind her.
The main beach is silky sand with rolling waves pounding ashore. There were no surfers that day, but the surf was worthy of their efforts. Helen had learned to body surf on these breakers, first time she and Robin were here. She strode into the sea, Perro following. So much for him protecting her bag. She had to battle the waves just to walk out far enough to swim. She didn’t think Perro would keep following, but he did. He was soon in over his depth. Helen returned to him, trying to get him to go ashore. She wanted to swim, and Perro wanted to keep her near him. She went out farther and farther, figuring the waves would force him to give up. He kept swimming, waves pounding in his face and then over his head. Helen looked back, astounded to see his head bob up from the surf, battling to get to her. His face, when it wasn’t submerged by waves, was frantic. He was in over his head and, in his mind, so therefore was she. He couldn’t let her be that far away.
Helen let the waves carry her back, he swam out. When they met, Helen coming inland, Perro going seaward, he climbed up the front of her, exhausted. She held him and let them both be driven back to shore. Helen decided to try again; maybe Perro would realise it was best to leave her to her watery fate. No, he swam out again, and again they floated in, gripped together. Third time, Helen stayed closer to shore. Perro stayed at the water’s edge, with eyes on her. If she crossed his designated depth line, he was in the water, to save her. If she didn’t, he stayed on the beach. When he felt sure that she would stay nearby, he took up sentry duty beside her bag. She was free to have a leisurely swim as long as she stayed close enough to not worry Perro.
After her Perro-permitted swim, Helen trotted up to where he stood guard. They lay down on the towel and sunned their bellies and their backs. Helen read and Perro dreamed with moving paws and whiffling noises. Was he chasing rabbits or swimming in his dreams?
For dinner Helen and Perro walked to a fancy restaurant about a half kilometer up the road. She told him he deserved it. The waiter said no dogs. She wasn’t asking to take him in the dining room, Helen said, she just wanted an outside table for “myself and my dog”. English in a haughty tone got them a lovely patio table and a delicious doggy-bag.
Next day Perro and Helen use their agreed-upon system for swimming. Helen stays near shore and Perro guards her stuff. She wears no contacts or glasses. She’s promised Perro she won’t go out over her head, but she can still duck inside the waves, surf with them and let them roll over her head. Perro sits spine rigid beside her pack. A man walks past, too close for Perro’s liking. He snarls until the man passes, and resumes his watch over her. Helen comes out of the water. Perro keeps his position until she reaches him, then wags himself silly in delight that she’s back safe and sound.
She asks him what they should do for dinner. Being a beggar dog, he knows to keep his own counsel and let the donor decide. She decides well – a thatched hut bar up the beach. The owner knows Helen. He tried to talk her and Robin into operating the bar in winter so he and his wife could go to San José or maybe to San Francisco. There’s a cat, the bar mouser, and a parrot. Helen lets the parrot sit on her head where it squawks at Perro. No one else makes a fuss about Perro’s presence; he is a welcome guest. He just has to put up with that insufferable parrot, and the cat staring at him with malevolent eyes. Pay-off is big time! A big plate of fresh shrimp.
Next morning, Helen packed a small bag with water and biscuits for them both. They walked across the wide swath of public beach and entered the jungle, heading to the parque nacionale. Helen had been in the park before; she knew there was a small, protected beach. Without surf, it would be nice for Perro. Perro also knew the park, and the park rangers, and he lagged behind as they neared the entrance. He knew he wasn’t welcome.
Helen strode to the park gates. She too knew dogs weren’t allowed. The guard saw him, and said quite a bit, the only words Helen could pick out being “prohibidos los perros”. Helen said “El es mi perro, él viene conmigo.” The guard said in English, “No dog in park, get away.” To make sure his point was clear, he raised his rifle and aimed it at Perro.
Helen jumped in front of it screaming, “put that gun down right now. Are you a lunatic?” “No dog in el parque. Stray dogs get shot. You not want that, get away.” “You’ll have to shoot me first and think how that will look on international tv.” She carried on in that vein, despite knowing no cameras were anywhere around. Perro snapped ferociously, from behind Helen. Using both Spanish and English, the guard told Helen he had the right to arrest her, and shoot the dog. Helen said “no tienes jack shit. Si you touch este perro, yo kill you myself. Y yo soy una norteamericana, una canadiense. You want to defend yourself against headlines – ‘el guard en shootout con una canadiense y perro de la beach’?” The guard put down his rifle. “We know this dog – un parásito, always begging. This one time, go in.” Helen didn’t know, but hoped, that her impassioned defense, fracturing two languages, helped Perro win the day. And his action! He too confronted the guard and he knew, better than she, the risk he was taking. They walked fast as soon as they got in the park. Get some distance, in case the guard changes his mind.
They passed the first beach, one with large waves but not as large as those that hit the public beach. Some people were way out, riding the waves. Families with small children were on the beach or in shallow water where ebbing waves washing over the children gave them a thrill without endangering them. Ten minutes more walking brought them to a small beach tucked in a cove. A couple of people were at the far end. Quiet beach and quiet water, just as Helen remembered it from a day there with Robin. Helen and Perro waded in. Helen swam and floated, Perro dogpaddled alongside her and sometimes rested in her arms. They swam, sunned and swam again. They left just before twilight and walked across the public beach in darkness.
Supper at her cabaña restaurant, steak. Not what Helen would usually order, but she’d be leaving the next day and Perro needed a good meal. How could she take him with her, give him a home? But she and Robin are going on to Nicaragua – part of this working holiday. Borders, planes, hotels, vets, vaccinations, not enough time. There is no way she can take Perro, and should she even try? She tells herself she’s not the first turista Perro has made feel at home here, and there will be more.
The morning bus arrives. Helen boards and so does Perro. She tries to explain to him and the driver while she puts him off the bus. The driver puts the bus in gear and again finds he has an extra passenger, a very determined dog. All Helen can hope, as she pushes the dog off the bus the final time, is that another turista comes soon for him. Maybe one who will take him home. She stumbles to the back of the bus, tears streaming, and looks back. He sits at the bus stop, watching the bus as it snakes its way out of town.