Last week around this time, I was waking up in a bed overhung by a delicate white mosquito net, listening to the buzz of cicadas, the chirping of geckos, and a far off monkey howl or two (or twelve), wondering what adventure the new day would bring. This week, I’m back at my standing desk under fluorescent lights on the second floor of an office building and I know exactly what question every single person who approaches is going to ask me: “How was Costa Rica?,” probably followed by, “Can you help me schedule a meeting?”
I spent all of last week, eight days to be exact, in Costa Rica on the Caribbean coast near the small town of Puerto Viejo de Talamanca. I know it was only a week and it was only a vacation. It was mainly lying on the beach and drinking Corona. It wasn’t challenging or harrowing or even that unique, yet still I’ve been struggling with the question of how to describe my time there.
My coworker/acquaintance answer has been to say that it was fabulous: “So, sooo great! The beach was beautiful and the water was so warm. There were geckos chirping and scampering all over the house and monkeys in the trees right outside. The food was superb. Also, I saw a basket full of baby sloths, so I can pretty much die now.” That’s my practiced answer. And it’s not false.
My real, complicated, soul-searching answer is that the trip was frustrating as well as beautiful. It was confusing and also peaceful. It was humid and sticky as hell and it stirred up a lot of existential shit in my brain. The sloths were freaking adorable though.
As I’ve documented in previous entries, I’ve really been jonesing to travel lately, and I’ve mostly figured out the logistics of realizing that goal. What I haven’t been able to figure out is why I want to travel, to what end, and for what purpose. If you’re thinking, “Can’t you just travel to have fun?” then you must have me confused with some other Karen - some Karen who doesn’t attach existential meaning to every action in her life, whether it be cleaning the kitchen or eating a hamburger. The Karen who is me cannot just “have fun” unless there’s some greater purpose behind it.
The last time I took a big international trip, I signed up for a two-year commitment to integrate into a culture, learn the language, live like a local, educate the community, promote peace and understanding, and basically try to save the world. I don’t really want to dive into that deep end again anytime soon (or probably ever), but the idea of just showing up in a place for a week, eating in the best restaurants, seeing all the tourist attractions, and never interacting with a local unless you’re buying something from them doesn’t seem like the ideal way to experience a place either. With Costa Rica, I was trying to test drive some inbetween way of travel, trying to make the trip into something meaningful without going all Mother Teresa on everyone, but things got a little convoluted along the way.
I first started planning this trip about nine months ago, back when I wasn’t supposed to go to Costa Rica at all. I was supposed to go to Thailand. And I was supposed to be going for love. I guess you could say the whole trip actually started with a Tinder date. One date with a particular Tinder Guy turned into a second date, then a third, which led to giggling at inside jokes and gazing dreamily into each other's eyes across candlelit tables. That led to weekend getaways, snowy hikes, and finally to declarations of love in a cabin overlooking the frozen high desert of Oregon on New Year’s Eve. It was all so romantic and unexpected and wonderful in a “Is this too good to actually be happening?” kind of way. Answer: Not too good to be happening, but definitely too good to last - because all this happened despite (or maybe because of) the fact that Tinder Guy was himself planning to move to a foreign country for two years to integrate into a culture, learn the language, live like a local, educate the community, promote peace and understanding, and basically try to save the world.
Instead of seeing this as a giant impediment to long-term commitment, I sort of viewed it more as an opportunity to kill two birds with one stone. Now I could explore a new far off destination, satiate my wanderlust, and do it all in the name of love. What could be more meaningful than that? So, soon after he left, I started planning our reunion in Thailand.
The traveling for love plan lasted about four months before Tinder Guy broke things off. In retrospect, this was really not that much of a surprise because, as I’m continually reminded and yet somehow fail to absorb, long distance relationships are awful - like finding chewed gum stuck to the entire contents of your purse awful. I’ve heard (read: I’m skeptical) that there are people out there in the world who have made these types of situations work, but my experience has always been that being in a long distance relationship is like trying to make dinner plans with someone who’s upstairs with the door closed while you’re downstairs in the kitchen. Like so:
Downstairs: “What should we eat for dinner tonight?!”
Downstairs: “I said, WHAT SHOULD WE EAT FOR DINNER TONIGHT?!”
Upstairs: [muffled grunting followed by a thud] “-ackers!”
Upstairs: “Don’t [inaudible] (blockers??) -ing!”
Downstairs: “Oh my god. NEVER MIND!”
For some reason, neither person is willing to simply traverse the stairs and then downstairs person gives up and eats a whole package of cold Poptarts, effectively ruining their dinner. That’s what a long distance relationship is like.
So anyway, when Tinder Guy broke things off, I suddenly found myself with my tickets already purchased, vacation time on the calendar, and a desire to see a foreign land, but with no greater purpose behind my trip. All I knew was that I had to change my destination immediately. (Even if I can never manage to avoid clearly doomed relationships, I’ve at least learned to steer entirely clear of the exes that result from those doomed relationships. And if that involves being on a totally different continent, then so much the better.) I pondered a new location for approximately three hours and then on a whim exchanged my coach tickets to Thailand for first class tickets to Costa Rica. My reasoning was thus: When you get your heart broken, you get to fly first class. (That said, now that I’ve experienced both, I can say with absolute confidence that I will take not being heartbroken over complimentary champagne and extra legroom any day.)
So, it’s not that I’d always wanted to see the Central American jungle, or that I wanted to practice my Spanish (I don’t have any to begin with), nor am I a wildlife expert or a surfer or really much of a beach person for that matter. I had no real reason to go to Costa Rica except that I had to go somewhere, and it sure as hell couldn’t be SE Asia. So with that meager starting point, I tried to imbue my trip with some new meaning. My first thought was to make it into a solo trip/DIY writing retreat, since that has worked well for me in the past. Working on a creative project is something that has inherent meaning for me. If that wasn’t enough, I thought maybe I could try to visit some churches and learn about the spiritual traditions of the country, maybe gain some understanding of how people commune with God outside of the American Evangelical Christian world in which I’ve grown up. You know, stuff you can do in a week. Even with those lofty goals, the plan still felt like it was lacking.
To complicate matters further, I found that I was still emotionally fragile and not really stoked about being totally alone on what began as a couples trip, so when my mom and brother asked to come along, I jumped at the chance for company. “Well, maybe it can be Family Time Solo Writing Retreat Spiritual Journey Jungle Safari Beach Trip Where We’ll Probably Play Cards and Eat a Ton of Food,” I thought. In hindsight I realize that what I really wanted was for this trip to be everything. I wanted it to be a time of deep relaxation, spiritual enlightenment, creative productivity, quality family time, and I wanted it to be a gauge for how to do travel in my life going forward. I was trying to hedge my bets so that whatever the trip became, it would be better than my original version - the one that involved walking hand in hand with your chosen person past golden temples, staring dreamily into each other’s eyes over plates of exotic food, and sharing a hammock on the porch as the sun sets over the palm trees. Turns out, nothing could be better than that because that is a fantasy. It doesn’t exist and never will and therefore it can't really be outdone.
The result of all my planning, unplanning, replanning, metaphorical overpacking, and befuddlement was this: My mom, brother, and myself stayed in a two-story wooden home high on a hill in the jungle, built in the traditional Costa Rican style with large windows and open-air hallways, looking out over the lush tropical surroundings. Troops of Capuchin and howler monkeys scampered in the trees all around the house.
Just down the hill from our house was Selvins, a breezy open air restaurant which made the most decadent fresh Caribbean food - beans and rice cooked in coconut milk with traditional spices served with fried plantains and shrimp, sea bass, lobster, or whole red snapper in creamy coconut or garlic butter sauces.
A little farther down the two-lane forest road outside our house we found El Refugio, a quiet little romantic restaurant under a canopy surrounded by jungle with a small kitchen and a single chalkboard which listed the menu for the day. The seared ahi steak was the best I’ve ever had. There was a beautiful young couple on a date to the table on our right who I couldn’t help envying every now and then.
On a few days we rented cruiser bikes from one of the many vendors along the main street and pedaled 6 km into town. The road was constantly under construction, so we dodged potholes, orange cones, and giant rumbling trucks along the way. When we got to Puerto Viejo we drank beers at a restaurant on the beach with waves lapping almost at our feet. We perused the local arts and crafts and listened to delightfully awful Reggae covers of classic songs which wafted out from every beachfront bar.
In the afternoons I was able to sit and write and listen to the sounds of the jungle, knowing that I’d have to stop soon and join the group decision making process of where to eat and what to do next. I was never fully focused, but I managed to write eight pages of hopefully not drivel.
One morning we toured the Jaguar Rescue Center and saw baskets full of sloths being hand fed carrots while tiny baby monkeys climbed up their handlers, rolled, and played in the grass nearby. Next to the monkeys was a pile of sleepy-eyed baby possums on a blanket. A black and white striped ant eater roamed the grounds, brushing up against tourists as he lumbered by.
On our last full day at the coast we rode out to one of the farthest Southern points before you hit Panama, the sleepy hamlet of Manzanillo Beach. We locked our bikes on a wobbly, mint green painted suspension bridge and hiked along a coastal jungle path out to a wooden overlook where the waves crashed with impressive graceful force against the rocks below. We watched crabs skitter over the craggy rocks and hunker down before each wave. Nearby, another beautiful young couple took selfies with the turquoise water at their backs. Jerks.
And that’s how Costa Rica went. Each day felt a little magical, a little relaxed, a little haunted, a little happy, and a little melancholy.
Costa Rica was beautiful in an otherworldly sort of way that I had never before experienced firsthand. It was also full of poverty and traffic, potholes and giant insects that like to land on your head and flap around in your hair for several seconds before plopping down to stay on your computer screen.
Costa Rica was a real place, not a magical fantasy. It couldn’t be everything and it couldn’t satisfy all the big existential questions that I like to drag around with me everywhere I go. It couldn’t tell me how to travel, why, or to what end. It couldn’t tell me how to fix my frustration with the boring status quo of my life. Costa Rica couldn’t tell me if I’ll ever find a romantic partner willing to stick with me for more than six months (I was really hoping you’d figure that one out for me, Costa Rica). The place didn’t offer me any spiritual enlightenment or insight into a benevolent universe. All those things take so much longer than a week. They take a lifetime, and I’ve always hated that timeline.
In the end, the best thing about the trip (besides the baby sloths, obviously) is that it gave me a clean slate. This trip had been a point on my horizon for a long time and for most of that time it carried with it a ton of pressure and a few ghosts from the past. Now that it’s come and gone, I feel a little lighter and freer knowing that those things aren’t hanging over me anymore. I’m free to start fresh and look for new points on the horizon - to look forward to a new person, to my next trip, to the undiscovered things that make me feel alive, and to the new ways I might find to contribute to this world. The existential questions will always be around, I know. I'll keep trying to figure them out here at home, even while I plan for my next adventure, one that will hopefully include a little less heartache and a lot more baby animals.