Canada to Mexico: Part III – Enlightenment

The day after arriving in Costa Rica, as I waited in line to buy a bus ticket to the Arenal Volcano, my head was still spinning with the excitement and newness of my surroundings. Earlier that morning I’d managed to order breakfast from a little outdoor market café using the most primitive of means – I pointed at what someone else was eating. When someone ordered coffee, I caught the waiter’s attention, pointed at the coffee and then at myself. He understood immediately the universal sign for “me too.” Incidentally, it turned out to be the best coffee I’ve ever had.

In the ticket line behind me stood a long-haired brunette of slender build, about my age, with full lips, brown eyes, an olive complexion and, when she noticed me glancing at her, a friendly smile. I smiled back and then it was my turn at the ticket window. I told the man where I wanted to go. In response he rattled off a question in Spanish that left me dumbfounded. I thought the name of the place I wanted to go was all he’d need to know and wasn’t prepared for his completely unintelligible question. I thought, “What do I do now?” and looked around helplessly, part of me willing a guardian angel or God himself to come down and interpret for me. Seeing my confusion, the dark-haired woman behind me came forward.

“He wants to know if you want a return ticket or just one-way.”

After receiving my one-way ticket to the volcano, I waited as she purchased her ticket and then extended my thanks for coming to my rescue. As we boarded the bus I realized she was going to Arenal Volcano too and so I took the seat next to her. I introduced myself.

Her name was Maria Hernandez and she was an American living in Los Angeles with her video producer boyfriend. She’d grown up listening to her grandparents speak Spanish. We chatted about our plans while in Costa Rica and discovered we had planned the same itinerary. We quickly agreed to travel together and share accommodations. Then we began the process of getting to know one another. She listened attentively as I rattled off the story of my divorce and need to get out and shake the dust off.

I couldn’t believe my luck. Considering that my first-hand knowledge of Latin culture was limited to Jose Feliciano’s rendition of Feliz Navidad and Old El Paso tacos out of a box, I was relieved to be invited to join someone who had a good handle on Spanish.

A few days into our adventure, we agreed it was time to take a day off from sightseeing to hang out at the beach. We had just arrived in the quaint and isolated coastal village of Montezuma on the Nicoya Peninsula in northwestern Costa Rica, a bohemian little town that attracts the backpacking, neo-hippy crowd. The village sits on the edge of a small bay that wraps around from West to East and then West again. The small, colorful homes and businesses of the village dot the edge of the bay interspersed with tall large-leafed tropical trees and coconut palms that lean out over the water.  On the south side of the bay, a sandy beach stretches for several hundred meters, backed by lush tropical vegetation under which a carpet of orange, brown and green leaves was scattered. The waters of the bay were a postcard-perfect translucent blue and there wasn’t a ripple on its surface. Occasional small waves lapped at the beach’s edge in a gentle rhythm. We kicked off our sandals and I was surprised at how hot the sand was. It was barely 10am.

We chose our spot among about 20 other bathers and lay out our towels. I removed my shorts and t-shirt to reveal a black two-piece bathing suit that contrasted sharply with my skin, ghostly white from so many years cloistered under layers of cold-weather clothing. I lay down quickly and tried to melt into the background of the beige sand, but I felt like I stood out like a polar bear in the tropics – a polar bear in a black two-piece bathing suit. I closed my eyes and pretended I was alone, enjoying the sensation of the warm tropical sun on my body. How I had missed this feeling!

It couldn’t have been 15 minutes before I could feel the sun’s rays piercing the barrier of my 50+ sunscreen. Sweat trickled and gathered in various crevices on my body and it felt like my face must be turning a bright shade of red given the volume of my pulse beating in my ears. It felt as though my face must be expanding and contracting with each beat of my heart.

I sat up and my head swam slightly.

“I’m gonna go cool off.”

Maria silently acknowledged me with a slight nod of her head. I looked at her and felt a twinge of envy of her Latina genes. I was pretty sure she had already turned a shade darker, whereas I was quickly breaking out in pink and red blotches. I headed off to the water.

I looked around and took the sights in and felt a wave of giddiness wash over me as I appreciated how my circumstances had changed in a short three months. I’d dreamt of doing something like this for years.

At the water’s edge, I dipped the front of one foot in the water as a small wave surged forward to meet me. It was refreshingly cool. I walked in waist-deep and slowly lowered myself and submerged my whole head. The noise of my pulse beating in my ears began to subside.  A few more head dunks and I felt like myself again. I floated on my back, gazing up at the bright blue sky, the water pulsing all around me.

In a fit of exuberance, I did a little back flip and submerged my whole body again feeling the coolness all around me. I wasn’t very far out, so a couple of strokes and I was able to stand up on the bottom where the water came to just above my waistline. I was so relaxed I felt a little rubbery. My beach towel beckoned me. I turned and casually started back towards the beach looking forward again to the heat of the sun, when…

WHAM!!   All of a sudden something pushed me from above and behind. I was thrown upside down, under the water, flipping, spinning, arms and legs flailing, powerless against the force…and then…SLAM!!  My back came down hard on the sandy bottom and   WHOOSH!   I was pulled upwards and before I could get a gulp of air.  BAM!!!  I was hit from behind again, flying through the water and thrown on the bottom…Then, as quickly as it started, it stopped and I was drifting under water.

I reestablished my sense of up and down, and regained my footing, wondering what had just happened. My head spun.

It occurred to me then I should probably turn and face the ocean to avoid another run-in with more rogue waves. I also realized that my bathing suit bottoms were hanging down somewhere south of the border. I yanked them up, only to realize that there was a remarkable amount of sand in the crotch, which now bulged well below where it should. To make matters worse, I was now a considerably closer to the beach and the water only came up to my knees.

The sensible thing would have been to swim out and empty my bathing suit of its contents, but my senses were rattled. I backed out of the water, turned and “crabbed” my way back to my towel, reaching into my bottoms every step or two to remove large handfuls of sand.

I noticed that Maria had propped herself up on her elbows and was bearing witness to all. Her head was tilted to one side in curiosity and, I think, concern. She tilted her sunglasses skyward and squinted at me. “Are you okay?” she said, a slight smirk breaking out on her lips.

“Ya, no problem. I’m fine.”  

Still a bit shaky, I flopped onto my towel. My mind reeled as I enjoyed what must have been a surge of adrenaline. And then I realized that I was giddy with excitement.

“That was incredible!”

Maria’s eyes narrowed suspiciously.

Suddenly, I realized I’d had an epiphany, undergone a conversion of sorts.

“I get it now. I really get it! Those waves are powerful! This is why people surf.”

Prior to this moment, surfing, if I were pressed to explain something I had little knowledge of and therefore no interest in, was the stuff of movies – the only “surfer” I’d ever heard of was Jeff Spicoli, a character in the 1982 movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High. I’m from Ontario. I grew up in the 70s knowing who Bobby Ore, Eddie Bauer and  Wayne Gretzy were. Duke Kahanamoku and Laird Hamilton were names I’d never heard. The ocean had always been something you visited, looked at and walked along. The notion that waves existed, let alone could be ridden by a person to produce a thrill beyond compare was completely foreign to me. In the few seconds when those two waves had their way with me, this normally remote and little understood pursuit had assumed a new tangibility for this land-lubbing Canadian woman.

I decided then and there, “I’m gonna learn how to surf.”

Maria looked at me like I’d shaken a nut or two loose.

“Are you crazy? What are you talking about?” She shook her head. “I dunno girlfriend, it looked to me like you got your butt kicked. Are you sure you know what you’re talking about?”

I was never surer of anything.


Canada to Mexico: Part II….Costa Rica

In the office a couple of weeks later, my friend Julie was sharing photos from a trip to Costa Rica she’d recently taken. Julie is a vivacious French Canadian woman with whom I share a love of sports, languages, music, good food and life in general. She put the joie in joie de vivre. She announced she was enrolling in Spanish lessons over the noise of the radio, which she’d tuned to Latin dance music. She flitted about the office as she told me about her trip – making dance moves that seemed as exotic as the tale she was telling me. It all sounded so wonderful and passionate and exciting. And out of my reach. She showed me her photos and surprised me when she explained that she’d gone on the trip by herself.  

“Isn’t that dangerous?” I asked her. It had never occurred to me that a woman could travel on her own to a foreign country. My conservative, angst-ridden view of the world had just been stood on its head again.

According to Julie it was very safe and she explained how she had traveled from place to place on local buses filled with other foreign travelers just like her, many of them making their way on their own. It sounded too good to be true. The travel virus from the Tuk boy’s van came out of dormancy and my head spun with dreams of travel and the hot tropical sun beating on my ghostly white skin.

My excitement waned when my financial reality superimposed itself on my daydreaming head. I really couldn’t afford the airfare, but Julie said that once you were there hotel and food prices were remarkably low.  Still, I didn’t see how I could afford it.

The next day it dawned on me. The one thing acquired from the marital assets was the collection of airmiles accumulated from 6.5 years of household credit card expenses (a large outstanding balance of which I sadly also took away with me).

I pressed Julie for details and began to plan a trip following her itinerary. I called the airline and booked a two-week trip for February 2000. I ordered Spanish for Beginners.

Time flew. Before I knew it I was bound for Costa Rica. On the plane, I pulled Spanish for Beginners out of my backpack and cracked it for the very first time. I’d sworn I’d have basic Spanish down before I got there, but between work obligations and the demands of writing my master’s thesis there wasn’t much time left for idle pursuits like learning a new language. I cursed my job and myself as I tried in a last minute panic to cram as much Spanish into my brain as possible during the four-hour flight to Miami. By the time the plane from Miami touched down in the capital city of San Jose, CR I’d managed to memorize “My name is Dawn,” “Where are the bathrooms?” and “How much is that?” I could also count to ten.

The plane was abuzz with the excitement of other travelers as we all waited for the cabin crew to open the door and set us free. Meanwhile, I took the opportunity to remove my wool socks, revealing two very white, cold-to-the-touch feet.

At this point in my life, my feet were perpetually numb with cold and had been for round about 17 years. On a high school night-skiing trip I’d managed to frost bite all ten of my toes to the point that they turned black, the result of all the capillaries in my toes rupturing in an excruciating explosion of pain. Yes, I cried. Then I went out for pizza and forgot all about it until I went home and took my socks off. A friend who was staying overnight with me screamed when she saw my toes. That’s when I remembered the pain I’d been in just a few hours earlier. In the days that followed, I hid my grotesque feet and the pain they induced, too petrified of parental wrath were I to reveal my fetid phalanges, and thereby risked gangrene setting in. It was just dumb luck that let me keep my toes, but not until all the nails and a thick layer of skin peeled off several weeks later. It was pretty disgusting and painful. Ever after I had semi-numb, cold feet.

I slipped my Teva’s back on and waited.

The next thing I knew they were opening the cabin doors and the airplane filled with the warmest, softest most sweet-smelling air I’d ever smelled. The warmth enveloped my feet and I felt them tingle with sensation as they warmed as though placed in a tub of balmy water. As I disembarked, my whole body was enveloped in the caress of the tropical air and seemingly sucked it in through its pores. I felt my shoulders and then my whole body relax. Until that moment, I hadn’t realized how much tension my body was carrying as it braced against the cold of a Canadian winter. I slowed to a crawl as my senses were overcome and I wanted to stop at the bottom of the stairs so I could just drink in the sensation. But there were Costa Rican airport officials there herding us towards the terminal. Air appreciation would have to wait.