Cabuya Island: When setting overtakes story

Years back, while traveling in Costa Rica, I saw a small island just off the southern coast of the Nicoya Peninsula. It was rainy season, so the island was a tangle of green rising up from the blue sea.

A whitewashed archway marked where the island’s beach gave way to the green interior. Three or four people were making their way out there from the mainland. It looked as if they were walking on water.

What an image, I thought. What a setting for something odd and beautiful and inexplicable.

At the time I had no plans to write a mystery.

It took years for the book to take shape in my mind. All the while, the island stayed with me, insinuating itself into the heart of the story.

Little by little I learned more. Cabuya Island was the only island in Costa Rica still used as a cemetery. A rock bridge emerged at low tide, allowing access. There were rumors of it having been a pre-Columbian burial site.

I had so many questions. How narrow was the window of opportunity to get out and back? What if you got stranded—would you have to hunker down amid the headstones until the tide turned? I wondered how the locals celebrated funerals, and whether or not resident foreigners were interred on the island alongside the locals. I wondered, especially, how such a beautiful place had escaped the fate of other covetable pieces of land in a country that often seems to go to the highest bidder.

The fact that the place was sometimes an island and sometimes not spoke to me of isolation and influence, of the complicated fate of an out-of-the-way nation that has become in some ways a victim of its own success. Costa Rica has worked hard to make foreigners fall in love with its land and people. Now it’s dealing with the fallout of that love.

Last month, I decided to make a serious bid for a first draft of my book. And what better place to work than at ground zero, so to speak: in a rented house with a view of the island?

Upon arrival I got down to the business of churning out my 50,000 words for National Novel Writing Month, the annual event where writers spend the month of November completing a large chunk of their books. And of course I wanted to know more about the island.

But for this writer, too much knowledge can be a dangerous thing. For a setting, a character, or a theme to keep my interest piqued and my imagination firing, I need to know something about it…but not too much.

Toni Morrison said that all of her novels begin with a question. For Beloved, one of my favorites of her books, the question was, “What would cause a mother to kill her own child?” The quick answer, in this case, was “To save him or her from being enslaved,” but there are worlds within that answer to be explored, which is what Morrison did to such haunting effect in her novel.

She kept the question fresh so that it would be a constant source of speculation and inspiration. She walked the thin line between finding answers and knowing that some things can never be fully explained.

So close to the initial source of my inspiration, I was having trouble walking that line. As the cemetery island loomed larger and larger, my own story was in danger of being swallowed by the incoming tide.

In fact, the island more than doubles in size at low tide, as rocks emerge and extend like dragon’s teeth in all directions. Many boats have wrecked here, not to mention the fleet of plastic bottles and other flotsam that wash in daily.

With just a thin layer of sand and dirt, many of the island’s graves are above ground, in rectangles of cement covered with what looks like bathroom tile or with patterns of seashells pressed into the wet cement. There are bright and dusty plastic flowers on graves, and buzzards flap heavily from tree to tree, as if carrying corpses on their wings.

I learn about small-town Costa Rican funerals. Embalming is expensive and it’s not the custom in this country, despite the heat. A wake is often held at the town’s thatch-roofed open air bar. The funeral party proceeds to do what its name suggests—party—taking time out between beers to peer into the little window on the lid of the coffin to see how their buddy is doing. Not too well, given that he or she is suffering the fate of all meat in the tropics. But the deceased are dressed to the nines, in clothes they probably wouldn’t have worn when alive.

The mourners carry the coffin over at low tide. The grief is fresh–they haven’t had time to compose themselves. If it’s dark they’ll carry candles, and whatever the time of day there are flowers: deep-red wild ginger, bird of paradise, fleshy blooms that look both brawny and riotously colorful, like men in drag.

And yes, foreigners are buried here. Most are interred in their own separate section—segregated in death as they were in life. The foreigners’ gravestones are more individualistic and less religious. One man who loved his dirt bike has a tire tread in the cement of his grave. A pilot’s grave is marked by a propeller and a huge fist, which he made as a young man in art school. The fist is grasping something; I later learn that it is the wind. The pilot lived hard, so for a time, I guess he did catch a bit of wind. Now fellow hard-living expats go out to the island to snort cocaine off the fist.

I learn of a local man who led the charge, a decade back, to keep the island the town cemetery and not let it be sold to a developer or annexed to a nearby national park. I learn of more locals, members of extended families who have been here since the town was settled, and all their grandparents and aunts and uncles out on the island.

I start thinking that I should do a full-on oral history of the place. Interview everyone in town. Get a grant, maybe, and bring a photographer on board.

Whoa, Nelly. I realized what was happening. The novel I’m writing is a long haul. And I know myself—when I’m caught up in a big, difficult project, I’m ripe for another big, difficult project. Because the brainstorming phase of a big, difficult project is always more fun than the actually doing of it.

So reluctantly, I let go of the idea of an oral history and I got back to my own story: a story that embraces the island but is not displaced by it. The oral history should be done, perhaps by a local who is a part of the living story.

What keeps me going with my own story is to remember, again, the living, breathing questions that prompted the book in the first place. What happens to an island that, although steeped in death, is also a living example of Costa Ricans keeping control of their own history, of their past, of the line back though grandmother and grandfather to the country’s roots? How does a country walk the line between being isolated and being so open it invites cultural and financial invasion? And most fundamentally: How does a place under a sort of touristic siege hold on to its soul?

This post first appeared, in a slightly different form, on the Novel Adventurers blog.




  • By felicia, February 28, 2012 @ 11:55 am

    Loved this post. I got chills of delight several times. The cemetery. The brawny fleshy flowers.The history. Now finish that novel. I want more of this land, it’s people.

  • By Erin Van Rheenen, February 28, 2012 @ 12:19 pm

    thanks for reading! As for the novel, I’m on it. 😉

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