March 20, 2023

I didn't want to go to Costa Rica

I didn't want to go to Costa Rica.

Just ask my poor cousin who drove me to the airport. She told me the other night that she was afraid I was not even going to get on the plane. But I've wanted to go to Costa Rica for well over a decade. And after my mom died, I wanted to go…somewhere. Anywhere. I was itching to get away from here, be it permanently or temporarily, so one of my friends and I booked a trip.

But in the weeks and even months leading up to it, I was so anxious about it. Looking back, I think I was just afraid to get outside of my comfort zone in many ways, but I'd invested too much money, and I couldn't let my friend down, so I went.

At some point after that ride to the airport, something changed.

I got up early that Saturday morning, and the first thing I did was bust my lip. It wouldn't stop bleeding. Two hours after I did it, I was standing in line at the airport holding a bloody paper towel to my face and wondering why I thought traveling during spring break would be a good idea. There were college kids everywhere. The security line was a nightmare because most of them had no idea what they were doing. Once I finally made it to my gate, we were informed that a flight attendant didn't show up, and we had to wait for one to come in from Nashville. My plane left two hours after it was supposed to, and the moment it lifted off, I got sick. I haven't gotten motion sickness since I was a kid and have never had it on a plane, but I spent the next few hours trying not to puke all over the mouthy old lady sitting next to me.

By the time I landed in San Jose, I just wanted to go home and maybe take a nap first. But somehow I managed to pull the wrong suitcase off the carousel and had to take it back and find mine, which took forever. And then, as I finally met my friend outside the airport, some guy came and tried to take my suitcase, and I nearly belted him, but she informed me that he was our driver.

Thankfully, my friend had some nausea medication with her, and the driver who I nearly took out had some cold water waiting for us. And thankfully, the two-hour drive to our hotel was rather pretty and distracting from the fact that I felt like death.

The hotel itself was gorgeous, and every single person who worked there was beyond nice. That was one of the first things that struck me about the country in general — the people are so nice. I realize 90% of everyone I dealt with works in the hospitality industry, but they go above and beyond what is expected. Even the immigration and security people at the airport were so kind.

A guy showed us to our room, and it was just breathtaking. We stayed at the Los Suenos Marriott Resort, and we splurged a little for a "swim-up" room, which basically means you step off your little patio, and you have your own little pool there that you share with about 10 other rooms. It was well worth the extra money so you could, for example, come home from a harrowing ATV experience in the jungle and jump in and cool off before heading out to eat.

I'm really not a resort kind of person — my friend who came along won't travel otherwise — but I will say it's one of the nicest places I've ever stayed. (When I go back, I'd like to rent a house and kind of immerse myself in the culture a bit more.) The only problem I really had was with some of the other guests. There was a group of young men (maybe college freshmen?) and their parents, and they were extremely rude, loud, and entitled. I was embarrassed as an American at the way they treated the place.

That night we swam and ordered room service, and I was starting to feel a little better, but I remember texting my cousin who had driven me to the airport and telling her I still didn't want to be there. I told her I was just going to have to count down the days until I came home. And I really felt that way for the next day or two.

On Tuesday, things changed. I've told this story 8,000 times in many formats, so I am going to try to keep it short, but my friend and I each picked an activity that we really wanted to do no matter what. Hers was an ATV jungle tour. I have never been on an ATV. I've never had a desire to. I've watched too many friends get hurt on them. When it comes to activities like this, put me in the water or on a boat. But she agreed to do my thing, so I went along with hers. I couldn't sleep the night before. I couldn't eat breakfast that morning. I was so nervous when I first got on the thing that one of the guides asked me if I knew how to drive a car.

I managed to make it up the mountain, but when those guys told me that I would have to let one of them drive me to the waterfall where we were supposed to swim, I just lost it. I've jokingly compared it to being a little girl when my mom signed me up for gymnastics. I was all for all of the activities except for doing a flip over the uneven bars. I specifically remember a night during which Miss Paige and Miss Ivy stood on either side of me and begged, bargained, and bribed. They offered me stickers, a milkshake, $20, and a trip to my favorite store. They promised they would hold on to me and not let me fall. I refused. I cried. And here I was 30 years later in the same position, only Miss Paige and Miss Ivy were replaced by Juan and Jesse, these hot Costa Rican dudes.

I've reflected on this a lot, and I realize it wasn't so much that I was afraid of the drive down as I was just afraid of giving up that much control among other things that had nothing to do with the actual steep, rocky terrain on which we were about to embark. But those guys were patient and professional and knowledgeable and honest, and when Juan said, "I've made up your mind for you," I ran out of excuses. And believe me, I had a lot of excuses.

So, I rode to the waterfall with Juan, and it wasn't so bad. I regret not enjoying the waterfall more, but I was just terrified at that point, so terrified I could barely even walk to it. My legs were shaking. The other ladies in our group swam and took pictures. I sat on a rock. My friend wasn't feeling well, so she decided to head back up the path early, and I followed. When I got to the top, I just kind of sat down in the middle of the dirt and wondered how in the world my life had come to a point where I was sitting in the dirt in the middle of a jungle in Central America trying to regulate my breathing the way Mel Gibson did with his asthmatic son in the movie Signs.

A few minutes later, Juan came up behind me, made some jokes, and asked if I was good. I think I responded by asking if he'd drive me back. He said, "of course. I'll have to." I said, "No, back all the way." He laughed and said, "To the office? We can do that." Thank God. Not only did I not want to drive, but I had zero confidence in my ability to do anything for myself at this point, and plus, I'm not gonna lie, if I have to ride on one of those things, it's a lot more fun riding along with a cute Costa Rican dude than it is going solo.

When we got back to the office, that's when I realized something had changed. I was no longer counting down the minutes until I could go home. I kind of wanted to stick around and see what else this place had to offer. I mean, I'd survived the thing I was dreading the most and actually ended up having a little teeny tiny bit of fun with it. And it really opened my eyes to some things about myself that I needed or wanted to change, but that's a story for another day.

The rest of the day I was kind of on a cloud. I remember Juan joking that he and I had to go back up the mountain to get the vehicle I'd made them leave behind. I remember getting back to our hotel and jumping in the pool. We went to the hotel bar for supper, and I had the best nachos I've had in my life and a couple of gin and tonics that probably kept me on that cloud a little longer. I also remember being super sore the next day.

On Thursday, we got to do my activity of choice, and that was a little less demanding. It was actually one of my favorite parts of the whole trip, though when I excitedly posted my videos and pictures on social media, I was met with lots of disgust. Apparently, most people don't find it exciting to let monkeys climb all over you. Well, I'm not most people. I'm the person who would think I could go pet a lion and it'd be cool.

So, we had to get up early that morning to go hang with the monkeys, but it was pouring, and there was a chance it might get postponed. Unsure, we headed to the resort's breakfast buffet, which was actually always really good. I took a picture of my plate each day, and I went from eating bacon, eggs, and hashbrowns to empanadas, gallo pinto, and fresh fruit really quickly. I tend to be a picky eater, but I wanted to embrace the culture. I just had no idea I'd wind up eating beans and rice for breakfast every day and craving it like crazy when I came home.

The rain eventually stopped, and we sat outside and waited for someone to come pick us up for the monkey thing, and that is when we met Roy. I know I joke about leaving with a crush on Juan, but if I'm honest with myself, I think I really left with a little crush on Roy. He was just the kindest person I've ever met. He's a taxi driver, but our guide had some sort of emergency we were told, so he led the tour for us, and it was just the three of us, and it was just such a fun, pleasant day.

We drove out to this place where monkeys live in the wild, but they're human-friendly, and will come climb on you, especially if you have fruit. Or in my case, they will climb on you and smash bananas into your shirt and play with your hair. I loved every minute of it and have no less than 60 videos of monkeys on my phone now. He explained to us that it was birthing season, so the alpha male and the females were a bit territorial, but he walked us up the road and showed us where the moms and babies were hanging out in the trees.

After that, we went to a nearby beach and ate fresh local fruit and talked for a while. I really enjoyed getting to know more about Roy's life, and he talked about how the pandemic had impacted the country. I really could have just listened to him talk all day. I wanted to know everything about him. He was a cool guy, and I got the feeling he had an interesting past. I regret not asking him more, but I was also trying not to be too nosy. Next, we went to Tarcoles Bridge to check out the crocodiles who live there — they did not climb on me — and after that, we went to this little restaurant to enjoy an authentic Costa Rican meal. It was so good. My only regret is that I was too full to finish it all after breakfast and the fruit at the beach.

My friend wanted to go into town and pick up some souvenirs for her family, so I suggested we ask Roy if he could take us rather than using the hotel transportation. I just felt really safe and comfortable with him, and I wish we had met him earlier in the week, so he could have driven us everywhere. We jumped in the pool to cool down for a bit, and then he came back and took us into Jaco and showed us where the good places to shop were located. I just can't express enough how much I enjoyed his company. I did not want to say goodbye when he finally took us back to the hotel.

By Saturday, I didn't want to say goodbye to any of it. The girl who started the week hoping to "just get through it" had fallen in love with this beautiful country. And it is beautiful. The people are so kind. I had a friend say, "There are kind people in the United States too," and I know that, but it's a different type of kindness. It's more authentic. The way of life is just so refreshing. It's more laid-back and casual. It felt like time passed a little more slowly. And the weather — it was warm and humid and while I did my fair share of sweating, most of the time I felt like I was being embraced by a warm sunshine hug. Really, that's the best way I can think to describe it. I wanted to be outside all the time, and thankfully, that's almost possible there. Everything there just felt right.

Well, everything except for the lack of Diet Coke, but I can learn to live with that, I suppose.

Maybe it's cliche for an American to go to some foreign country and find themselves or whatever, but I just really felt like I belonged there in a way that I've never felt anywhere else. I get homesick easily, especially when I have to leave my dog. Three or four days into a trip, and I'm beyond ready to come home. This sort of had the opposite effect on me. I went in kicking and screaming, and I did not want to leave when it was over. Since I've been home, I've been questioning everything I thought I knew about myself and what I want out of life. Maybe it's just some kind of weird post-vacation hangover, but it doesn't feel like that.

Right now, I'm just trying to get over the COVID the lady on the plane ride home gave me. She coughed like a smoker and blew her nose the entire time, so I figured it was inevitable. But after that (and after I finish this precalculus class), I'm gonna take some time and slow things down a bit and see if this amounts to anything or if it was just a fluke. Either way, I know that right now, I'd be more than happy to go back to Costa Rica for another visit. There is so much more I want to do and see. As the guy who drove us to the airport said, "You've only seen the tip of the iceberg."

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