I invited Livvy to Costa Rica against my better judgement. We were college friends but hadn’t seen each other in years, keeping in touch through Christmas notes and an occasional phone call. I knew she had some problems with her feet that would prevent any hiking through Costa Rica’s mysterious rainforests. But she always bragged about her linguistic abilities, which I thought might make up for the feet. I hadn’t realized it was years since she spoke Spanish to anyone but her maid, who always answered in English.

A suave Costa Rican at San Jose’s “Informacion” hailed us a cab. Livvy drew a blank when I asked her to do it. She forgot her Spanish-English dictionary as well as her vocabulary.

Livvy hadn’t changed any money, so I paid the cab driver.  I probably over-tipped, but how was I supposed to know? I assumed Livvy would know all about that stuff, being a world traveler and all. Livvy reminded me her world traveling was on tours. This kind of adventure presented a bit of a challenge. She was unaccustomed to thinking for herself in a foreign country. She assigned that duty to me. “You have enough brains for both of us,” she blurted, “even though sometimes you fail to use them.”

My timeshare brochure pictured a full kitchen, which I thought a terrific advantage. We’d save tons of money on restaurants. Livvy informed me she hadn’t cooked since her divorce, but it was nice to know I was still domestic.

After knocking several times on a barred doorway reminiscent of a B movie I’d seen in my youth, I heard a television click off somewhere in the interior. A hoarse coughing followed as a grizzled old watchman opened the door with a smile that would make an orthodontist cringe. His breath needed an equal amount of attention, as if he’d eaten a late evening meal of garlic and onion. He frowned as he checked us in, endeavoring to communicate in broken English that I confessed to him was far superior to my limited Spanish. Livvy remained silent. I could have used her assistance. Something is better than nothing.

The watchman opened our condo with a brass key that must have been fashioned in the previous century. He carried our luggage up a treacherous staircase to the upstairs bedrooms and then, without even turning to check his step, backed down them singing “Buenas noches, Buenas noches” as if he were auditioning for an opera at the National Theater downtown.

Livvy took the larger bedroom over the traffic. It would help her to sleep, she said. Sort of like counting sheep. She relegated me to the smaller room that would probably have been assigned to the children if we’d brought any.

A wind came up as I dragged my suitcase over the threshold. At least I think it was the wind rattling my shutters. But after I closed them, the wind continued. I searched the condo for an open vent. At last, as I looked down from the tiny bathroom window, I discovered an interior courtyard exposed to the starless sky. The maids had stacked their brooms and mops there. The faucets still dripped into the pails. I vowed to attend to the matter first thing in the morning. I was too exhausted at this moment to consider anything as taxing as walking downstairs and climbing back up again. When I checked on Livvy, she was reclining in an easy chair counting the traffic below. I prayed she’d soon be asleep.

I turned on the tiny radio beside my bed searching for an English-speaking station. The broadcasts were in Spanish and had a nasal quality as if the radio had contracted a head cold from the persistent drafts that snuck from the courtyard. I woke the following morning to the slamming of shutters against the window. Spring had retreated, and in its place dark clouds hovered. We’d arranged our day trips in advance and as luck would have it, today was our rafting expedition. The mighty Reventazon awaited us. I shivered as I struggled into my bathing suit, telling myself that the sun would surely emerge later or, better yet, Reventazon River Odysseys would cancel the trip. Surely no legitimate company would go rafting on a morning like this.

But I underestimated the stamina of the Costa Rican river guides. On the dot of six, a camper parked outside our condominium. A svelte young Salvia smiled her version of good morning, “Buenos dias,” as she helped us into the vehicle. “It will not rain, ladies. And if it does, it will only be a light drizzle, just enough to wet our hair, make our skin glow, nothing more.”

Since there were no refunds on cancellations, we chose to believe her even though the sky was streaked with charcoal as we drove through the countryside. Coffee plantations blossomed in the mist like tiny Shangri-Las tiered on the hillsides. So, this is what we drank each day. No wonder I longed for coffee every morning. It seemed a magical elixir.

Salvia smiled up at the coffee terraces. “In a little while, we will have some maybe. If he remembers to bring it. Our boatman is a male, you know. He likes to imagine he has more important things to do.”

As we approached the banks of the Reventazon, the sky quaked. A fetid odor wafted from the river.  Centuries of decay lay on its banks, a fertile habitation for caimans and other possibly lethal reptiles. A monkey shrieked above us, his voice a warning to come up, come up where it’s safe. His screech echoed through the forest. There began a shrill chattering in the canopy as if all the creatures of the forest were condemning our foolishness. I kept thinking our guides would surely reverse their decision to paddle down river. It would be dangerous in a storm. But I concluded from Salvia’s comments that our guides needed the income for next semester’s tuition at Costa Rica’s famous university.

We gathered under the protection of a dilapidated shed as other tourists arrived. Then, after we’d peeled off our outer garments, Salvia fitted us with life vests. By this time, Livvy lost the perm in her hair, her lips turned blue, and the goosebumps on her arms grew into hillocks. We straggled toward the river where the rafts were banked. “Like coffins on the River Styx,” Livvy snarled, whacking an insect from her earlobe.

I ached with the effort to understand the lengthy instructions shouted in Spanish by our boatman, Raul. Salvia translated as she paddled in the air, “All forward-all back, right forward-left back, left back-right forward, all right-all left. Hang on! Stop.”

By this time, the zing of the rain hitting the raft held a migrainous rhythm. An aerosol of actinomycetes filled the campsite. I knew from the dank odor rising from the river mud that no sun would shine this morning or this afternoon. We were in for it.

Salvia and Raul donned skinny wetsuits, leaving us still standing in our bathing suits and soaked T-shirts. Raul yelled through the downpour some incomprehensible directions as Livvy and I boarded his raft. Once again, Salvia translated, “Just remember when I say paddle right, the right-side paddles. When I say paddle left, the left side paddles. You see that waterfall? We’ll be heading straight for it. If you follow my commands, we’ll sail over it as the waves shift. If you screw up, we’ll be wrecked like those idiots down there on the banks or, worse yet, crack our heads on these rocks. Timing is everything.”

Muscles locked in my calves. Tension stiffened my fingers as I struggled into the raft, hoping my clumsiness wouldn’t capsize the vessel before we started.

We tested our footing as Raul barked orders, digging our heels into any convenient crevice for security. Salvia clarified his instructions, “If you get dumped, just remember to hang on to the rope when I toss it. Don’t let the river take you. It’ll dent your head. Smash you against those boulders like you were nothing but a cola can. So, are we ready?”

Livvy looked gray as rainwater before the sun breaks through. I clenched my paddle when Raul propelled us from the bank with Salvia’s assistance. She stood in the river unleashing our anchor, then pushed us off from the rear as easily as if she were a gymnast rather than a graduate student in tropical biology. With balletic grace, she swung herself over the side and perched in the triangular nook where she could second Raul’s commands. We paddled straight ahead toward the waterfall that Salvia warned us of. Livvy froze, her neck crammed in position, oblivious to Raul’s orders. Terror had transfixed her.

Then, without warning, the raft reversed itself in an eddy, coming within a hair’s breadth of a boulder. With consummate skill, Raul pitched the front of the raft up on a rock. “We’re taking a break here,” Salvia laughed.

Raul leaned back and popped a can of Sprite. “Anyone want to take a swim? The water’s somewhat chilly for February. You might not last long.”

Livvy remained silent as the rock we were lodged on. I shuddered watching the river making angry charges at the raft. Then, with new determination, as if he too feared the rising Reventazon, Raul shoved off.  As we approached the waterfall, he barked, “A la derecha, a la derecha!”

Livvy was paddling on the left. “On the right, Livvy,” I yelled. But Livvy still seemed oblivious. I tried to grab her paddle, but her grip on it only tightened as she glared at me through the raindrops smearing her sunglasses.

“Livvy,” I screamed again. But then we were airborne. My stomach quivered the way it did years ago riding the Coney Island roller coaster, praying the thrill would end. I felt the raft flip as Salvia hollered, “Hang on!”

I tried to grab the interior line, but my body was thrust forward. I was falling, the weight of my life vest only speeding my descent. I smacked something cold and unforgiving. Then I was under, turning somersaults in the rapids, rolling in a relentless chute-de-chute. My brain gagged as if the water were in my head as well as my mouth. I tried to surface, seeking the rope that Salvia had promised to throw. But the Reventazon was too powerful. Like a giant sweeper truck, it pushed me before it until my mind numbed with the effort to rise. My hopes collapsed like birthday balloons after the party’s over. If I knew any prayers, I couldn’t remember them. My only thought was a hollow plea for light, for air, for—

And then there came a thick, wet shock as my body slammed into some antediluvian ooze. The canopy rustled above me, but I dared not look up for fear of what I might see. An ominous shrieking startled me, as if the entire forest protested this invasion of its sanctity. I was indeed an alien from another world, a place I’d almost forgotten, where planes and trains howled their civilized warnings. Could I remain here forever, decomposing day by day into the muck, retreating into the deepest layer of slime?

At last, the shrieking stopped, and in its place a tremulous hooting began as if the inhabitants were conferring among themselves, deciding what to do with this intruder. I did not want to wait for their decision. There could be no reason why they wouldn’t decide that I looked a fit morsel for the week’s nutrition.

I tried to disengage my toes, but the muck held them fast. The weight of my sandals only pulled them deeper. I was certain I’d be buried alive. And why not? How many people have been lost in a rainforest never to be heard from again? Was I so special that it couldn’t happen to me? My former arrogance astounded me, the hubris of living as a conspicuous consumer of technology. No, I could never be that person again, unconscious of what existed beyond my civilized perimeter.

Slowly, the river began to inch its way up the bank, and this time I was glad to see it rise, happy to see it swell as the rain broke through the canopy and began, drop by drop, to wash me free.

I lay there in a somniferous state for what seemed like days but was probably only hours until my limbs moved, heavily at first, as if I were excavating my flesh from a tomb. Inch by inch, I freed my feet. Mud caked my toes, lodged in the creases of my knees. My arms were leaden weights. My bathing suit sagged with debris.

I dragged myself to my knees and somehow managed to steady myself on a tree branch until I reached full height. I thought of returning to the river, but dared not. Hungry caiman hid in the tall grasses, their hides almost the exact shade of the surrounding vegetation.

I decided to take my chances instead slogging through the forest. I would stay not far from the bank. If our raft passed, I would somehow manage to hail it. Foolish thought. They had gone down river hours ago. No way would they head back up in this torrent.

I wondered if they’d send a search party. I heard no helicopters overhead. I recalled the contract I’d signed so blithely: “The participant is aware that in addition to the usual dangers, there are certain additional risks, including the risk of collision with natural and man-made objects, and the participant willingly accepts all such risks plus the possibility of personal injury…”

No, they need not search for me at all. I came at my own risk. And it occurred to me that living was the ultimate risk, and I risked all for this insane adventure. Unwanted tears smeared the mud on my face. I proceeded to chastise myself for giving into emotions which could not help me out of my predicament.

I struggled forward, feeling the kind of desperation I’d hoped I’d never encounter. The hooting continued as I walked only it no longer disturbed me. It simply provided a background to the chaos in my head. Shafts of sunlight blinded me even though it was still raining. I was certain I heard Raul calling through the downpour, “A la derecha, a la derecha!”

“Where are you?” I heard myself scream. But my voice was silent. Fear caked it dry.

I pushed myself toward the riverbank, falling forward with each step. I had indeed reached the soggy side of hell.

It was then I saw it, the raft upside down on the bank, its oars smashed, splintered bits strewn among the reeds. I saw no sign of Raul or Salvia, only a pair of oversized sunglasses that I recognized as Livvy’s.

My heart began to pound an erratic rhythm as the forest enclosed me in glowing green rivulets. It was as if the Reventazon flooded the forest, and I was adrift upon it, my body floating in a coffin of green, swirling in a dizzying mist. I could no longer see through the banks of fog clouding my vision. I could no longer feel anything but the deadening beat of my heart.

Then something grasped my shoulder, lifted me up, up into the canopy. A verdant shroud covered me. Vines tangled my legs in a fibrous prison. I was being rocked like a child to a lullaby of shrieking, a chorus of chattering. When I dared to glance upwards, I saw through the mist what appeared to be monkeys staring, grinning as they swung me harder, tossing me between them. Their howling grew until it deafened me. I felt myself retch into the brush below. Black beans and rice dribbled down my chin. Something picked at my toes, sucking them clean, chewing them, the teeth cutting toward the bone. I screamed as they pierced my fingers with their nails, picking mud from the cuticles, licking the crevices. My head ached, as if aching could describe the agony that swelled my brain as they suspended me from my ankles to lick the rest of my body clean, scraping sharp teeth over my belly, pulling at my breasts, sucking them, gnawing my buttocks until I became a concave mass of blood and flesh. Then as the roar of the Reventazon flooded my brain, darkness surrounded me, all chattering ceased, the howling diminished as the forest faded breath by breath.