What You Find While Not Looking
When I hopped a plane bound for Costa Rica, I left behind both the simmering riotous urban grit of Baltimore City and the endangered sparkling beauty of the Chesapeake Bay region. It was literally my privilege to be able to leave in order to gain perspective on the situation and my place in it.
By leaving, I hoped to provide myself with an adventure while I continued to grieve the death of my mother. I was also heeding the advice of my yogi mentors and was prescribing myself some rest from holding space for others on the yogic path. And then I sprinkled on top a healthy number of visits with several nonprofit organizations. I even helped to plant hundreds of trees to offset the carbon footprint of air travel.
I boarded the plane alone. I had provided an outline of my intended itinerary along with a scan of my passport to three de facto emergency contacts. These folks would notice if I disappeared. I carried very little with me, just a modest backpack filled with the barest essentials and a tent. Deep in my chest, I also carried a stubborn refusal to acknowledge the commercial nightmare that is Christmas. Off I went, into something I was co-creating with friends I hadn’t met yet.
Upon landing at the international airport in San Jose, I exchanged a few of my American dollars for Colones and immediately started to speak terrible Spanish. I had hopes that with practice in the real world, the classes I’d been taking for years might solidify. The cab drivers at the airport first offered me rides, and then they catcalled me. Sadly, as a woman, this is something we get used to; still I was saddened to find it here too so immediately. I vowed to never give any of these men in cars a single bit of the currency I’d just received. I had that small bit of power in this particular situation.
As was my plan, I found the bus to Heredia and paid a sum equivalent to a dollar for the ride. After I got away from the airport, I was pleasantly surprised to find that people were generally friendly and also very helpful. Costa Ricans speak with a slow cadence and offer gentle corrections as you butcher their mother tongue. “Yo hablo espanol muy horrible,” became how I started most conversations, and I was only half joking. More often than not, a simple exchange in Spanish would follow, until they grew worried that I’d likely never find the bus I was inquiring about, and then they’d switch to English. They also seemed happy for the chance to practice.
In Heredia, I found Christmas ready and waiting to welcome me with its weeklong Black Friday sales, and mobs of shoppers. I blamed my own consumer culture’s ability to creep, and then did my best to avoid all of it. Once I was settled in at an affordable family run hotel, I set out on foot to explore my surroundings. Fueled by a morning coffee plantation tour and tasting, I walked further north up the side of a somewhat thickly populated inactive volcano, in order to find Galeria Octagono, a women’s craft collective and community space that encourages artistic growth.
The upward trek took longer than I thought it would, but once I arrived I marveled at the bright creations, and how beautifully unique they each were. A memory of my maternal grandmother and going along to help her at craft shows flooded back to me. This was how my grandmother supported herself after my grandfather’s early death. The aim here was similar. I tried to communicate my nostalgia in broken Spanish to the mother and daughter minding the store, as I bought bracelets made from recycled material in homage both to the memory, and a brilliant nonprofit concept.
Silvia, the founder of the space, showed up and offered me coffee and then she even invited me into her home where her collection of Sunday afternoon guests, included her co-host husband, as well as old friends, internationals, and kindred spirits where assembled. I’ll never forget her additional invitation to later join her and her family for lunch for Christmas, something she doesn’t “celebrate” either.
Even if you never have the pleasure of meeting Silvia in person, I highly recommend you visit the Gallery through the online store or Facebook page. If you are able to make a purchase, please do, as the women involved with this organization are subsequently able to earn money to support themselves and their children, while also growing their talents. If you want to start something similar in your community, you should. Silvia would probably even tell you how, because she is a beautifully generous soul.
On my way back down through the Barva region, as this area is known, I saw Tico families (a term for Costa Ricans that I would soon learn) dragging their fresh cut pine trees home atop car roofs with rainbows as numerous as windmills littering the skyline as backdrop. Despite the holiday hoopla, I quickly began falling in love with the Costa Rican people. I’d soon fall even more deeply in love with the land. But first, I had to figure out how to find the one bus company that would take me from San Jose to Puerto Jimenez –the furthest distance between points for the trip I had planned.
Sure I could have flown, but this was an adventure. I was taking the bus!
I should mention that technically there are no addresses in Costa Rica, a fact that makes finding the unfamiliar a bit like a scavenger hunt. After consulting my somewhat off guidebook, scouring several recent postings on Trip Advisor, and again asking for directions, I did successfully find the correct travel plaza and bus company office. It was closed when I arrived, and only opened ten minutes before the bus was to leave, but apparently this is how it goes with ‘Tico time.’ Once the office was open, I could only pay cash for my ticket, which is also the norm. After that was settled, I boarded the first of only two buses making the daily trip to the Osa Peninsula.
I intentionally took the first bus of the day, because I’d heard the roads are unreliable, and as luck would have it I got to experience such a scenario. We were in transit for 11 hours, two of which were spent waiting for the road to be cleared; of accident or landslide I wasn’t able to fully comprehend.
When we were moving, I saw windmills first from a distance and then right up close as we climbed higher and higher into the mountains. I saw clouds first hovering in the valleys in the distance and then, as we climbed even higher, they filled the frame of every bus window so that all that was visible was white fluff. There was a correlating extreme drop in temperature. As we slowly descended, swaths of green made up of plants I didn’t yet know how to identify came into view. People-watching on long distance bus trips is a lot of fun, especially when your bus begins to operate as a local bus too. Despite the warnings, to my knowledge, no one ever even tried to rob me. If you have the time, I highly recommend traveling by bus.
Once I arrived in Puerto Jimenez, I went out for my first Imperial – the unofficial beer of Costa Rica. I felt I had earned it! Afterwards, I attempted to get some sleep in between moto engine noises – the preferred mode of transportation as far as I could tell. I got up with the sun so that I could catch a collectivo; something I asked around about and thought I knew how to find, but I didn’t actually know what one looked like. When it eventually showed up, the collectivo was a large truck with a frame covered by canvas in the bed; essentially a hoop house on wheels. It looked more like a thing guerrilla soldiers might jump in and out of, than tourist transportation. I paid my way, climbed aboard, and braced myself for two more hours of slow and bumpy travel via a rutted dirt road. It didn’t take long for most signs of civilization to fall away, and for giant blue and brown butterflies to start lazily drifting in and out of view along the road – this was the Blue Morpho, which you can buy in a frame at the airport, but shouldn’t.
I’d been planning my time with Osa Conservation for months with the help of Bea, a volunteer coordinator on the ground, and she was now awaiting my arrival. The plan was for me to participate in the turtle conservation work going on there, and now that I’d made it successfully to the region, I could begin to relax into the idea a bit more. The lovely Bea met me as planned, and immediately offered me breakfast and coffee. She then gave me a tour of the facilities, made complete with a hummingbird sipping nectar from the yellow flowers inside of a gorgeous cold outdoor shower. It was as if Bea had planned for it to be there! She also gave me the good news that I could do both kinds of work that I was interested in – turtle conservation AND sustainable agriculture – so she gave me a tour of the fields as well.
There was so much to take in, and at one point I squealed in a surprised delight perhaps only E.O. Wilson would understand, as we stepped over leaf cutter ants carrying purple petals. In general, I began to say very little other than, “Yes!” And this trend continued the duration of my stay. Do you want to liberate turtles this afternoon, and monitor the beach at 4am? “Si.” Do you want to milk cows and harvest corn in the tropical heat of the day? “Si.” Do you want to ride a horse to the lagoon in order to kayak? “Si.” Do you want a bit more of this dish and more coffee? “Um, claro que, si.”
My schedule at Osa quickly filled with gloriously difficult and rewarding work. The days sped by, and already my memories are becoming a beautiful blur of happiness. I will never forget guarding baby turtles from predators on the beach; as they scurried off to their probable and statistically likely demise, Charlie, one of the researchers, and I whispered behind them, “I know you’re the one that’s going to make it back” whilst also teaching the feral dog to chase off hawks. Life is hard for turtles. First they have to survive the heat of the nest in the black sand in our era of climate change. Something that also determines their sex by the way! Then they must survive poachers and both land and sea predators. I learned that for every thousand-baby turtles that will imprint on this place, only one would reach adulthood, and return to this same very beach in order to lay the eggs for the continuation of their species.
Like the baby turtles, I now feel a similar draw to return, and I will never been able to shake the beauty of the Osa from my own mind. Brilliant azul skies held scarlet Macaws often flying in trios, moving from tree to almond tree along the beach noisily chomping on almonds. Apparently these Macaws are endangered everywhere else in the country.
Four a.m. wake-up calls were a delight as they came with the sight of fat clouds sitting motionless on the horizon while pulsing with light. Even the most frightening and the grossest things I experienced at Osa have become fond memories somehow. Not that I wish it were a part of my life here at home, but I almost miss the smell of jungle fungus. It first threatens to leave you stripped bare, as it eats through sweat and cloth alike, and from there it gets worse, as it tries to find that spot where it can bore it’s way through flesh too. My blisters became targets but with a little iodine, the fungus didn’t get its way.
I learned about more immediate health issues too, like the deadly bite of a poisonous Fer-de-lance snake. It is protocol at Osa to practice saying “emergencia” across the handheld radio just in case. For some reason the image of a cartoon pith helmet adorned explorer with a snake attached to his nose popped into my mind and still won’t leave. It is more realistic that this snake would strike at boot level, so Osa supplies their volunteers with rubber boots too. Even though mine filled with water each time I crossed the river for turtle patrol (six times a day), I grew to love my leaky boots too.
During my stay, I also started reading Tropical Nature, written by Adrian Forsyth, one of the founders of Osa Conservation. With his help I began to understand even more intimately what I was experiencing. His book not only helped me to identify the life forms around me, but also helped me to shift my North American perspective on things like bird migration, and yes, even yoga. Through his descriptive metaphor of the Matapalo, I began to think differently about the concept of ahimsa/non-harming, which is at the core of all yoga practices. The flow of energy in the jungle is conducted with an equal measure of destruction for each ounce of beauty. All around you, things are continuously being born, growing, and being taken back into the system – often abruptly. The information presented in the book matched what I was witnessing – an interplay simultaneously delicate and harsh. This somehow comforted me with what I’d experienced with recent loss, the death of my mother, life in Baltimore, and even our endangered Chesapeake Bay.
On the sustainable agriculture side of things, I fell easily into the rhythm of being a sidekick farmhand. My skill set is far from vast, but I learned quickly and could hold my own. For me this wasn’t a surprise really, as I grew up around my grandfather who was a farmer for a wealthy landowner in Maryland after his stint in the army. Everything being grown in the fields at Osa goes into the kitchen where it is prepared by a team of cooks and then delighted in by the staff and volunteers. With each seed planted by machete poke, I imagined the future volunteers that would be fed because of this work. And in return, the brightly colored compost slop from the kitchen went to the pigs. The cultivation of jungle land for agriculture is much more than a minor miracle and I’m happy to have been a part of it. Everyone should know this work intimately, its what sustains you.
Should you visit Osa, you may meet a dog that was just a puppy while I was there, but I’ll bet she will still be waiting for just a taste of the nearly two gallons of milk you’ll collect from five cows every morning. There are also hectares of corn waiting to be watered, and harvested. Some of it will be dried, and ground down for the chickens and quails. I haven’t eaten meat for more than twenty years, but I still consume eggs and cheese, and now have an even bigger appreciation for what it takes to produce these animal byproducts. I also enjoyed drinking fresh coconut water and eating guava directly from the trees, almost daily.
When it was time for me to leave Osa and my cohorts – Bea, Charlie, Manuel, Tabea, and Juan Carlos – I could barely drag myself away. It is probably a good thing that my mother will never read these words, but I literally had no fear, and I decided to hitchhike. As luck would have it, a kindly older gentleman in a barely held together truck, picked me up and together we moved slowly through the ruts in the dusty road. We had lovely conversation and he was happy to gently correct me or offer up the words I was missing whenever I asked “como se dice.” We even picked up another female hitchhiker who I happened to recognize from the collectivo ride on the way in, but she sat in the back and we only nodded to each other in solidarity. That’s what it is like in Costa Rica – people moving about in solidarity, helping one another. Pura vida!
Still, after being so in tune with Nature’s rhythms, even landing back in Puerto Jimenez was jarring simply because of the noise. I bravely hoisted my backpack and kept it by my side as I started climbing back aboard buses, making connections to other buses, and moving amongst the noise and larger numbers of people. I was heading to Quepos, where I would try to make sense of political signs for upcoming elections, and try to meet up with friends from home who were coming to meet me.
After her own ordeal at the airport, suddenly my friend Sisi was there! The first order of business was to wash all of my clothes. Twice! Then it was time to leisurely explore the Costanera. I allowed for the extreme pleasure of a rental car and an Airbnb nestled in the mountains overlooking the ocean. The sunsets here were mirrored in a swimming pool, and at my request Sisi took some stunning pictures of the yoga poses I held in the foreground, while unseen laughing falcons, well, laughed, and brightly colored toucans bobble-flew by out of frame. As is typical, nature made me look good!
On the property, we also had a private waterfall replete with more Blue Morphos drunkenly fluttering through more dappled sunlight. It’s hard to put a price tag on this experience, but the per night cost was only slightly more than the market rate price I charge for guests staying in my own home. We stayed for two full days, and I’d happily pay to stay there another time if I ever again have the means. Honestly, I also thought about living there illegally in my tent.
My favorite place in this region, aside from the house with the washing machine that Sisi found, was Parque National Marino Ballena. I liked this place because of its numerous sand dollars, and a beautiful but rapid tide that closes in over the beach. We were sternly warned about this tide, and about thieves, at the ranger’s station; so when the water started closing in and we prepared to leave, I was almost hesitant to try to be a good Samaritan by simply moving swimmers belongings out of the fray. From a safer distance, nearer the signs warning about crocodiles, we watched the Policia chase stragglers out of the park. I couldn’t imagine riding over the beach or any part of Costa Rica on an ATV but it happens.
After my friends left, I was back on the bus and amongst Ticos as I made my way to Puntarenas for the ferry to the Nicoya Peninsula. There I would visit Santa Teresa and then Montezuma. Once upon a time, my friend’s sister, Kerri, fell in love with a local named Vill, and ever since they have been raising babies and growing their concept – The PUEDO School. This is a place where you can teach English to the young people of the community; or, through one of its projects you could perfect your Spanish (Vill told me it would take three months to fully string my mucho palabras into frases completas). You can also take surf lessons from the professionals, and get lost in the beauty that surrounds you. It might seem complicated but it really is very simple. Life here can be just that, but Nature’s deadly strength is still there to remind you who is in charge. Luckily the professional surfers are also lifeguards. The point again, is that people here have one another’s backs!
I meant to stay with Kerri and Vill, for only a few days, but for nearly a week I safely enjoyed the ocean, wandered the beaches, watched stunning sunsets, and made temporary art installations from seashells. I also became fascinated with the construction of beach bench swings and out door showers built in spiral shapes. I marveled too, at how people expressed their “dry season, dirt road” fashion. After one day spent trekking through the dust, I even gave it a try myself because I was gifted a bandana (thanks again Erica!). The look would have been more complete if I’d been riding a bike with a surfboard strapped to the side, and if I were a better surfer. Regardless, this place is my kind of place, and my hosts are living my kind of life.
During my wanderings along the dirt road, I stumbled across a realty office to inspect what it would be like to be considering property in the area and found that at the moment it’s somewhat comparable to where I live now in Baltimore. During my wandering, I also found a wonderful pop up shop that was selling all sorts of lovely things. I was most impressed by their B.O.L.D., cause-related, fundraising bracelets with various animals represented. They didn’t have turtles, but I still loved the concept, recognized some synergy, and promptly sent a link to Juan Carlos, a friend back at Osa. As he is also a PhD candidate experienced with tracking big cats, I have already only half jokingly placed my order for a B.O.L.D. bracelet made of red cord and a metal jaguar head bead- you’ll have to get in line for yours.
The importance of the conservation work being done in Costa Rica was reinforced further in Montezuma, where Kerri and Vill originally started PUEDO, and still maintain operations. The gang from Santa Teresa and I spent one last fabulous day together while snorkeling at Isla Tortuga and then they left me behind back in town. I spent only a few days in Montezuma but they were spent imagining yoga classes in the grass just before the cliff overlooking the sea in front of the PUEDO School, and searching for two Cascadas/Waterfalls. The one just outside of town is apparently one that Beckham jumped off of and the other required a six hour round trip ramble along distinctly different beaches.
One beach was full of driftwood and the other was piled with numerous Cairns. Sadly, there was also a tremendous amount of ocean trash washed ashore there in large swaths. The odyssey immediately became worth the effort when I spied my target from the distance spilling onto the beach. I bouldered my way to the top, and spent time luxuriating in an infinity pool made by Nature!
When I managed to leave this place, yet another beach paradise, I boarded the ferry heading back to Puntarenas. On the upper deck, a full-fledged Tico dance party broke out, and of course so did the laughter as competitions began. Our journey rather abruptly ended, and I logged even more hours on buses, this time on my way to Arenal, a region known for a fairly recent volcanic eruption and large lake made even bigger by a dam. Midway there I changed buses, learned there was a second bus terminal two blocks away, and was escorted there by a kindly employee, then spun by yet another towards the correct but similarly named bus, all in the nick of time. I am still dazzled by this level of kindness.
Almost immediately the bus began to make its way up into the mountains and the temperature dropped and rain began. There was no doubt that I had left both the beach and Costa Rica’s dry season behind.
At this point the dreaded holiday was upon me, so I rented a car for protection and drove along Lake Arenal with two goals in mind: 1. to finally use that tent I’d been carrying all month, and 2. to sit in hot springs as much as possible. After all of the hours I’d been at the mercy of buses, I also gave myself permission to simply follow any impulse I had to stop and explore. The signs literally started to appear.
When I followed the signs for a BioRestaurant, I found my rental car (not 4Wheel Drive by the way) practically perpendicular at one point, but I managed to find the place, and it was there at Restaurant Nuevo Arenal TINAJAS that Cindy Murrilo made my camping dream come true. (Oh, and the food is wonderful too!) Cindy told me we were situated on the Agricultural Peninsula, which had belonged to the people since ancient times and of course I should feel free to camp. The view at the restaurant is one of the most magnificent I encountered on my trip, maybe even more so because of the rainy season’s propensity to produce rainbows. They would suddenly appear between the clouds and shoot down into the lake in front of me, with windmills lining the ridge of the mountains on the other side. At this point I was also in my tent and happy as a clam.
The other set of signs I followed related to an old inside family joke and culminated in a free stay and a job offer – they read, Toad Hall – which ends up being an unfortunate name in Spanish,as apparently the word toad also means gossip. Still, I was happy to have an affordable place to stay for the holidays, so that I could then purchase the two-day pass to The Springs, a place with numerous hot springs, many situated along and even overlooking a river. Such a deal!
On Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, I soaked for hours, often totally alone, and so I also meditated. I meditated on gratitude. I meditated in honor of my ancestors. I meditated in honor of my mentors. I probably even meditated on your behalf. At lunch I drank a drink made with Guaro while watching toucans, and all of this, I did in the rain, quite happily. At the Springs, I also got to see every animal I hadn’t seen in the wild, because surprisingly (my guidebook didn’t mention it!) they house wild animals at the request of the Costa Rican Wildlife Ministry after an organization called PROFELIS Rescue and Rehabilitation Center lost its main funding source.
I worry about the animals I saw at The Springs since learning that zoos would no longer be legal, because these animals clearly had serious issues and couldn’t possibly survive in the wild. That being said, of course I think many of those confiscated animals shouldn’t have been kept as pets in the first place. In general I think Costa Rica is moving in the right direction in regard to all of these things they will no longer fund; things like hunting, and the military. I appreciate a culture that decides to say no to the things that no longer serve the greater good.
In fact, it’s one of the things I love best about Costa Rica, and if you are already aware of this it bears repeating – THEY HAVE NO MILITARY – and those dollars are instead focused on education and culture! Also, aside from transportation, the country is run on renewable energy at a rate of more than 90%. I’ve only just dipped my toe into understanding the politics of Costa Rica, but the overall “we’re all on the same team” camaraderie of the majority of the people I encountered, and the overall feeling of truly being welcome and connected to Nature, left me with an inkling of what saying “Pura Vida” means.
I’ve been home now as long as I was away, and my trip seems like it happened a lifetime ago already. Our region is currently recovering from a massive climate change sized winter storm. As I sit here still hunkered down in a forced sort of hibernation, in part because of the snow and also because of another more serious street harassment incident; there’s simply no way to distract myself from also thinking about a recent murder committed here in my neighborhood, which I might add, was quickly followed by an intentionally set car fire, and a nonfatal shooting during a street robbery. While this many horrible events in such a short period of time may seem startling, they are somehow also not surprising, and that normalization bothers me.
“Baltimore is at least consistent,” I’ve started to say to the brave few that wish to discuss it, but that still doesn’t make it okay, and I have no idea how I can possibly continue accepting a culture made up of victims that continue to create more victims instead of banding together to collectively overthrowing the system, but I think I can divest from it.
My current level of white privilege stems directly from my mother’s death, and because of money she made from being a maid for most of her life; I spent hours of my childhood working along side her. I’m tired, and I don’t just want to continue to struggle to live, I want to thrive, and I can’t seem to do that here in Baltimore. I feel like a Maryland blue crab needing to molt or a Costa Rican hermit crab realizing that it needs a new shell, and I’m hoping I don’t die from getting picked apart while I figure out my transition. I just need a fresh start.
So, I’m heading back to Costa Rica, and I’ve already begun planning the details of the yoga and meditation retreat that I will conduct in the Osa next Winter. I’ll likely include a more nuanced understanding of Ahimsa, and I think that if we are truly honest about that, then we can grow into something better. I look forward to living through this creative process and sharing the fruits of my labor with as many people as I can.
Until then, I’m awaiting the Spring tree plantings that are necessary for our world’s survival, and I will continue to honor my commitments, but I am also saying no to things that no longer serve me. I am also awaiting the Springtime return of the birds that Maryland and Costa Rica share – Baltimore Orioles, Osprey, Hummingbirds – to name a few. I understand why they make the journey, and I plan to join them on their migratory path!