I wrote this short essay about my experience in Costa Rica quite some time ago. I had written it in hopes of getting it published. I sent out many submissions and only heard back from one telling me it wasn't really their style. This is a piece I still really love despite its underwhelming response. Heather Jackson took some beautiful photographs that really conveyed the beauty and emotional experience of that place. I miss it sometimes and am forever grateful for Paddle 9 making this beautiful experience possible. Enjoy!
Traveling, some people live for it and some choose to stay within the comforts of their home town, state, and country. It’s no secret that traveling can enrich your life, give you a new perspective on the world, and make us more rounded human beings. So, why do people choose to avoid it? I live in America where many rarely leave their hometown; let alone the country. I’ve met people in their early 40’s who have never had a passport to stamp and some who believe traveling puts them at greater risk of terrorist attacks, rape, and murder. It seems as though the media chooses to misinterpret the world as a whole and has made it their personal mission to instill fear into the American people.
I grew up in a small town in Colorado called Rifle existing in this in-between landscape, not quite the mountains nor the desert.The name Rifle suited the town well. I remember when I was in highschool we’d have parties up in the hills, if you didn’t have a lift-kit and four-wheel-drive you hoped your friend did. While one boy would be displaying his machoness by walking through the fire wearing Carharts and steel-toed boots another would be practicing his constitutional right by shooting down trees with his shotgun. The tree would fall and the teens would hold up their cans of keystone light cheering. It was morbid and from an early point in my childhood I knew I didn’t belong there.
My liberal tendencies were an anomaly amongst the gun toting, engine revving, grade-A Americans. I was starved of culture and began to find ways to curb my curious hunger. When I was 20, I used what was left of my student loans and went to South Africa; alone. I returned back humble with a tenacious drive to continue my self-exploration through world exploration.
About four years later in the month of November 2016 I hopped on a plane headed for Costa Rica where I was to live for the next five months working as a guide. But, before we go into that let me back up a little bit; two weeks prior to my Costa Rica departure I had been in Japan to paddle it’s rivers and get lost in a culture I knew nothing about.
Japan was mind boggling, another planet existing just on the other side of the world. In Japan I witnessed a strong effort to preserve tradition and maintain a lifestyle free of the burden of possessions. It gave me hope for mankind and made me question my American lifestyle. I was coming back to the States a better version of myself.
I had a week in Rifle before I was to fly to Costa Rica. The gas-guzzling vehicles and needlessly extensive suburban homes filled me with a strong contempt for my country. Japan was simple, homes were filled with necessities only, the cleanliness and respect for nature was astounding. Once I left my cultural awe was quickly replaced with a bad taste in my mouth. The moment I walked into my grandparents door in Rifle, CO I was suffocated by the news. Videos of police running through the streets of Paris carrying machine guns wearing helmets and bulletproof vests. Civilians screamed as gunfire echoed off the walls of the historic buildings. My Grandfather sitting on the couch saying things like,
“What has this world come to?”
“I was afraid this was going to happen.”
Not long after those words left his mouth he began complaining about how much this catastrophic world event was being covered and was instantly bored of it. My cheeks filled with blood and my muscles tightened. I had to get out of there and there being my home country.
So, there I was, laying on a cold tile floor during my overnight layover in the Houston airport. Between the country music, intercom announcements, fluorescent lights, and janitors I probably slept a total of 30 minutes. It wasn’t just my uncomfortable sleeping arrangements that kept me up, it was the unknowing of what was at the end of this one-way ticket.
The plane jolted me from my buzz — brought on by the friendly conversation and white wine shared with the Costa Rican sitting beside me. And as I stepped out of the air conditioned San Jose Airport; a new kind of buzz was being administered. Immediately, I was ambushed by 30 sweaty taxi drivers pushing and shoving their way to the front, like a pack of wild hyenas fighting for scraps, yelling
“taxi, necesita un taxi”
My new boss Brian, a wiry guy from Philly, picked me up in his dented black suburban saving me from the pack. We arrived in Quepos in darkness; exhausted, I collapsed on the bed of his spare room not knowing what my world was going to look like when I woke up.
Out on the balcony the next morning I could practically feel time slowing as it moved through the riotous jungle surrounding me. I walked into town and what I found was a strange contrast of untroubled chaos. The cars sped by in a frenzy ignoring the traffic laws that I had always adhered to. Men whistled, my blonde hair labeling me as an exotic and vulnerable foreigner. My clothes clung to my sticky skin. It wasn’t long before my wardrobe was stripped of pants and anything with sleeves.
As the weeks passed and my skin got darker; I was beginning to look and act less like a tourist and more like all the other American transplants. After a couple of weeks living with my boss and his gorgeous Latin-American girlfriend I found my own place up on the hill of Manuel Antonio. This apartment, this little piece of mine, turned out to be the center of my world for those three months.
Manuel Antonio feels a bit like a bubble, one of the most touristy towns of Costa Rica, as it is home of the most visited National Park in the country. My apartment was tucked away beside the busy Main Street, the only thing separating my unguarded studio was a locked gate and a chain-link fence. Broken concrete steps took me away from the incessant honking and into a sleepy commune decorated with tropical foliage; even a couple banana trees. It was my paradise for only $300 a month.
The property owners and caretakers were two young tico brothers assuming responsibly of the property after the tragic drowning of their mother a mere two months before my arrival. The only other tenants of the commune was Monty & Duke. Monty was a frail, hard-of-hearing lawyer with a strong distaste for clothing and Duke a heavy-set American retiree’ who made excellent banana bread and lived for football. Three flea infested dogs that I found irresistible roamed the property. Milagro, the tom-cat, was a sleeper by day and an expert gecko stalker by night. And almost every morning the monkeys would visit; raiding the trees of their freshly grown fruit.
Costa Rican’s are referred to as Ticos and Ticas. When I would show friends my new apartment they said it was very ‘Tico'. Meaning, it’s very simple, no screens on the window—bars on some of them and no air conditioning (a luxury in Costa). My shower head had electrical wires coming out of it; of which would smoke from time to time mid-shower. Ants marched across my counters, invading my space by walking over my computer and crawling on my legs as I worked. It’s an uphill battle trying to get rid of the pests—so they stuck around waiting for me to forget to put food in the fridge; which I did. But it’s what I wanted, I didn’t want the gringa apartment I wanted the apartment that would take me out of my comfort zone because that’s where the magic happens.
When I imagined my nights in Costa; I imagined falling asleep to a jungle orchestra of frogs, crickets, geckos, and rain dancing on leaves. Instead, as I lay in bed I would reminisce about the moderate mountain climate while sweating into the mattress, the maddening hum of the fan distracting me from my dreams but the only thing stopping the mosquitos from devouring me as I slept. My nights were not nights one from Colorado would consider particularly pleasant. I missed the crisp air, the weight of blankets on top of me, and the peace and quiet.
But, the Costa Rican mornings, this is when I felt the magic I was looking for. My body clock would have me up at 5 a.m. every morning. Before the roosters. Before the sun. My coffee dripping slowly into the pot filling the room with the sweet aroma of costa rican beans. From 5 to 7 my porch and rocking chair was my favorite place, the temperature was a perfect 70 degrees and while sipping my coconut coffee I would watch the jungle come to life.
First, the green parrots would squawk loudly to each other on a nearby tree, probably bothering those still trying to sleep but I ate it up. Then, off in the distance, I would see little capuchin monkeys jumping from limb to limb; swinging and playing. As a group they would make their way to mine and the other surrounding apartments. They mostly came to harvest the fruit off the trees but every now and then they would get lucky and someone would leave a fridge unlocked or food out on the balcony. To the locals they were a nuisance but I would watch them with a childish curiosity that never went away.
Inspiration seemed to be riding on the backs of those monkeys as they made their way towards me each morning. The jungle life may as well been a cup of coffee in itself. The buzz of activity awakened my creativity and my writing was blossoming; words flowing out of me with fluidity and confidence. I’m a firm believer that changing our surroundings and moving out of our comfort zones lights a fire under our creative selves and the parts of us that had been sleeping for lack of stimulation. Costa Rica may not have been everything I thought it was going to be but it was everything I needed.
I may never see my old boss Brian, Monty the nudist, or my modest little apartment again but every now and then a smell, a song, or event triggers my memory and takes me back. And I’m there sitting in my rocking chair, watching the monkey’s, and listening to the rooster crow. I feel no regret, just a distant admiration for the place that helped me uncover a piece of myself that has been waiting, patiently, for the right time to make it’s presence known.
Travel brings me balance, it puts my life into perspective. Deprived of comforts I never thought I cared about helps me appreciate where I come from. I came back from Japan so bitter, so frustrated with my country's skewed consumer belief that ‘bigger is better’. I didn’t want to be put in that box. My Costa Rica experience made obvious why travel is important. It replaced that resentment towards my own home with a gentle appreciation. Before, travel was a form of escape — a way of being someone new and free of all obligations that sit waiting impatiently for my return. Now, travel is simply a reminder this world is big and I am small and home will always be home.
So, I say TRAVEL! Don’t do it for the postcard, Instagram posts, or t-shirts. Do it because there is a part inside of all of us that needs to satisfy the curiosity. Do it because you have this chance to see and take the world for what it is; a scary, chaotic, beautiful collection of lessons and experiences. And when you find you’re way back home, you will have found another piece of yourself that could have only been found outside of your comfort zone.