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Blog

Filtering by Tag: costa rica

Choosing Flight

Amber

When I was a kid, I was immortal. I could barrel down snowy hills with sticks strapped to my feet and feel no fear. I could go streaking down grassy hills slippery with dew, without even recognizing the possibility of a broken femur. Even when I broke my left arm in third grade, it didn't slow me down because I didn't feel a thing.

Remember that? Diving head first into whatever caught your whim because you didn't know what a broken femur felt like? Or a shattered heart? It's easy to barrel down a snowy hill when you don't understand the cost of failure. But everyone eventually learns what it feels like to fall.

September 11, 2001 was the first day I truly felt my own mortality. It's become an epic cliche, but I think we all gained a fresh sense of fragility the day the towers fell. I was 22 that year, after graduating from college the year before and leaving Manhattan for San Francisco. But I knew people who worked in the buildings or near them. When I managed to catch one of those friends on the phone that night, she told me how she had to walk home across the Brooklyn Bridge, limping in her high heels as thousands of people crossed the water in shattered silence.

That was the first time it occurred to me that one day I would die. That I - and my friends and family - can be broken. I was lucky to make it to my twenties before truly feeling that. So many kids aren't that lucky. Being sheltered can be good - all children deserve the opportunity to spread their tiny wings without fear.

But eventually we all learn that we're breakable. We can and will shatter and we'll have to put ourselves back together again. But wrapping yourself in cotton batting and protecting yourself from the world is more dangerous. Too much joy and too many opportunities missed. As a champion cocooner, I know I've lost out. So I'm learning to be fearless because hiding is no longer a viable option.

I went to the Salton Sea this weekend, to visit the ocean that lives in the middle of the desert. It's beautiful, but the salt in the water is death to anything that lives there. But if you brave the stench and the flies and a shore littered with fish corpses, you can stand and gaze out at something beautiful that shouldn't exist but does.

Last year, I went zip-lining over the jungles of Costa Rica. I went with a friend and, as I was strapping on my harness, he called me fearless. Something I'd never really considered myself. But after the first terrifying line where plummeting to my death seemed a not so much a probability as an inevitability, I learned to enjoy soaring over the jungle. Soon, I was twisting and turning and flipping upside down to zoom toward the horizon with my stomach to the sky.

You can teach yourself to fear less. Especially when doing so means you get to fly.

Green Insects and Great Expectations

Amber

Hey, guess what! Traveling does not, in fact, turn you into a completely different person. If I thought I was going to go to Costa Rica and do anything but talk about bugs on Twitter, I was fooling myself. Isn't it a rule that you're not allowed to go to a foreign country for a month without something momentous happening? A life-changing event? An epiphany? A bestseller? A nice summer fling? Instead, I've spent most of my time becoming that much more cemented in who I already am.

Who I am really likes quesadillas and will always choose a nap over a fling.

None of this should surprise me even a little bit. And yet it does. Women are a mystery! Even to themselves! DON'T FEEL BAD, MEN. WE DON'T UNDERSTAND US EITHER.

I've had some feelings about my expectations, because I have feelings about everything and because expectations are a specific brand of human folly that really enjoys poking our tender bits with the sharpened tines of its cantankerous little folly fork. Ouch. Stop that, folly fork.

But your life is going to do what it does, no matter how many trips you go on, dates you set up, projects you do. Your life will always just be what it is, regardless of your expectations.

So I'm finally starting to shift out of poking range so I have space to enjoy the small things. Because the small bits are always the best part. And goodness, there's a wealth of happy-making in Costa Rica.

Ceasing Cyclical Self-Reflection In Favor of Small Bits of Awesome.

Or, Things I Really Like Here.

Walking down to the beach just to watch red and purple crabs scuttle frantically away from my clomping feet.

Sitting on the roof with the surfers and egging on prodigious thunder storms.

Swatting at my hair like it's developing a sentient personality, one that quivers eagerly at the thought of hastening my demise. I'm not convinced this is just my imagination. The humidity has not been kind.

Walking down dirt roads through the jungle to take a yoga class or buy more mangos.

Walking home in the hot sun and being offered a lift on what looks like a go-cart on steroids. I sit on the front and cling for dear life as we jolt down hills.

Propping my feet on the deck railing as I work on my laptop. If I lift my eyes four inches above the screen, I can see the ocean.

This Guy

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IMG_3764

Et tu, Jiminy Cricket? 

He dropped unceremoniously into my lap one day and then spent a reasonable portion of the night hanging out on my laptop. The next evening, I had a one-night stand with a lightning bug. The night after that, I learned to shut my door as soon as it got dark.

The Coffee and Where I Get To Drink the Coffee

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IMG_3775
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IMG_3766

Dogs That Show Up While I'm Drinking Coffee, and Wander From Table to Table In Search of Hands to Pet Them. Their Success Rate is Impressive.

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IMG_3779

Especially this one. I MEAN, LOOK AT HIM. 

I was tempted to take him home with me - he didn't have a collar and his ribs were alarmingly prominent - but then I remembered that not all dogs have collars around here and sometimes people carry machetes and I don't want to end up on the wrong end of a scythe because I blithely kidnapped some dude's adorable dog. And customs would probably have a fit.

Black Sand Beaches and White Sand Beaches and Yes, I Got Called Racist By Two Different People The Last Time I Mentioned What I Still Insist Are Racially Inconclusive Beaches

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IMG_3721

I went running today - at noon which, by the way, is a really stupid time to run in Costa Rica - and as my feet hit the sand on what must be one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, I realized that maybe my life doesn't need to change. Maybe I don't need any major epiphanies. Maybe I'm fine just the way I am.

Which is its own sort of epiphany, I guess. So never mind.

Life on the Mountain Top

Amber

My mom likes to tell the story* of how she forgot to latch the front door one day when I was a baby. She got in the shower and I made my break for freedom. When she got out, the door was wide open and I was nowhere to be found. She raced out of the house, towel flapping, to find me half a block away, waddling straight down the middle of the street in my diaper, trailed by a nice lady in a car who wanted to make sure I got back where I belonged. Thanks, nice lady. BUT I BELONG ON THE ROAD, YO.

* I like to say this is proof of my adventurous spirit, but it's probably just proof that people should lock their doors around me.

My adventures of the past few years have been of the smaller, more internal variety. I won't say I've forgotten how, but I will say that I got thrown for a loop my first week in Costa Rica. There were a lot of emotions and most of them were confusing. I'm-never-going-home-again giddiness! Send-me-back-to-my-friends-right-now loneliness! Quesadillas-for-breakfast glee! Where-the-effing-hell-are-all-the-vegetables discontent! Why-am-I-having-any-negative-emotions-at-all-because-I'm-in-Costa-Rica self hatred! OH-MY-GOD-LOOK-AT-THE-VIEW-THAT-COMES-WITH-MY-BACON mania! Many of these emotions happened within a few minutes of each other and, goodness, that gets exhausting.

But emotions don't get left at the airport and insomnia will happen when you drink six cups of coffee a day because surprise! COFFEE IN COSTA RICA IS REALLY, REALLY GOOD.

Also, There's This

beach
beach

I like it when the sand reflects the sky. It does that really well here. Good job, beach.

Even if I have to be glued to my laptop, even if I have more emotions than I prefer, even if I'm not exploring as much as I'd like, I'm still here. And that's what counts.

Sticking Out Like a Sore Turkey Vulture

Amber

I should be able to speak Spanish. At least enough to ask for avocado and use basic, if improperly conjugated, verbs. But all five years of Spanish yielded was the ability to translate what people are saying twenty minutes after they've said it. When I was lost the other day,  a lovely lady on a motorbike rode up and said "Quieres cambiar?" I smiled uncertainly until she drove away. Three minutes after she left, the slowly-churning cogs clicked into place. "WAIT, YES! I DO WANT A RIDE! SI! SI! Shit." I trudged on and cursed my youthful self for sleeping peacefully through fifth period.

At customs, I greeted the official looking dude behind the counter with a cheery "Hola!" He looked surprised and said, "You speak Spanish!" With an exclamation point, as though my hello was so fluent-sounding that he just assumed, and was excited by the prospect. I felt like I was betraying his punctuation when I admitted "Nope. That's all I've got." After changing a few dollars into colones, I tried to thank the guy behind the counter in Italian, French, and English. Basically, every language I have any familiarity with except Spanish.

Linguistic and navigational mishaps aside, I love it here. My office is a balcony that overlooks the ocean and a jungle full of howler monkeys. I eat mangos for breakfast and make coffee with the Costa Rican equivalent of the french press, which is basically a sock hanging from a mini wooden scaffold. You pour hot water into the sock and it drips coffee into your mug. The beaches are full of perfect shells and it's so humid the bananas sweat, which is gross, but not as gross as the "Don't put it in the toilet unless you've eaten it first" rule. Don't ask.

I love the details of new countries, details you only really become familiar with if you stop moving long enough to see them. Or if you're someone other than me, someone who lives in a place for eight months and when asked if you ever use the hot tub in the backyard doesn't say, "There's a hot tub?"

All The Minutiae That Has Entertained Me Thusfar

Blonde hair is unusual here. People straight up stare. It's not unpleasant, they just gaze at me in gentle confusion, the way you might look at a penguin waddling down Madison Avenue.

Last night I saw my first firefly. I was charmed. Less charming are the seven billion other insects, each of which has personally welcomed me to the country. They find my legs quite tasty and thank me for bringing them along.

A team of abandoned monkeys lives on the hillside where I'm staying. They used to serve as guard animals with a ferocious pitbull until their owner decided that was a stupid idea. They attack the sweet Husky that lives here by barking at it and throwing sticks. If you've never seen a monkey bark at a dog before, I highly recommend it.

mangos
mangos

Mango peels go here. I've been advised not to throw them near the house, lest the howler monkeys come say hello at 4 a.m. 

Fresh vegetables are hard to come by. Beans and cheese and rice and tortillas are not. If you eat in a restaurant, the salad options are green, chicken, and fish.

Very few people have washers and dryers. Most clean their clothes by hand on one of those ridged boards you see in pioneer movies. I now know my answer to the "Would you rather pay fifteen dollars to do one load of laundry or spend most of your time being grungy?" question.

Dogs are everywhere and none of them are on leashes. They're all friendly and come running up if you so much as glance their way. If you pet them and tell them what a nice dog they are, they'll walk along the beach with you for awhile before wandering off to sniff an abandoned surf board.

Strange birds populate the trees by the beach. They're black and rather formidable, like a cross between a turkey and a vulture. I'm all proud of my description, but they're probably called turkey vultures. Of the genus younotascleverasyouthinkus. 

turkey vultures
turkey vultures

My knowledge of ornithology is limited to peacocks and chicken sandwiches at Popeye's.

Why Pandas Shouldn't Be Allowed To Drive. In Costa Rica Or Anywhere Else.

Amber

The first thing I did in Costa Rica was almost kill a local. This isn't the kind of thing you put on your itinerary. Red-eye from San Francisco to Miami. Drink ridiculous amounts of coffee. Fly from Miami to San Jose. Wave driver's license and credit card and get handed a car. Almost kill someone. Drive through the jungle like Indiana Jones. Eat burrito.

When you're on the wrong end of a 24 hour journey, the first thing you should do when you step off the plane and into a foreign country is drive across half of it. Sure, you don't understand the signs or the rules or the etiquette or the traffic patterns. Sure, the stick shift bears only the slightest resemblance to your stick shift at home. Sure, you're trying to avoid mowing down the family that appears to be walking in the center of the road while also listening to what the tiny voice in the GPS is telling you.

All this to say, I don't know exactly what happened as I tried to merge onto the highway in Central America, I just know there was a lot of honking.

Sometimes you have to barrel forward even though you know you're doing it wrong. Doing it wrong is better than sitting there paralyzed. So barrel forward I did.

Driving in Costa Rica is like playing a video game, something I could say with more authority if I'd ever actually played a video game. You never know what's coming next: Dogs darting out in front of you, chickens pecking at intersections, entire families strolling down the center of the road, mountain paths so bumpy you feel like your teeth are going to fly out of your head.

I was in the car a solid hour before I saw my first traffic light. I'm not saying there weren't any traffic lights, I'm just saying I didn't see them. Fires were burning on the side of the road and the rooster to person ratio seemed heavily in favor of the roosters. Signs made no sense so I just gripped the wheel and hoped everyone would emerge unscathed.

The one sign I did understand was Fiesta de Pollo. I figured it out even before seeing the juicy birds turning on their spits, an accomplishment of which I am very proud. If I didn't have to drive all the way across Costa Rica before dark, I absolutely would have stopped for a chicken party.

Occasional gripping terror aside, driving from San Jose through...wherever it was and toward...wherever I was going (getting GPS was a good move for me) was well worth it. The road curved through mountain ranges under a deep blue sky and I forgot to roll up the windows before getting on the highway, so my hair was blowing cinematically in the wind. Until two minutes later, when it went from cinematic to rat's nest. But it was a spectacular two minutes.

Then the GPS started merrily chirping about falling rocks and dangerous bridges. Really? Is this something I should actually worry about or is it more an FYI? BE MORE SPECIFIC, TINY WOMAN IN MY GPS. Turns out, the falling rocks weren't my problem.

June is the rainy season in Costa Rica and torrential downpours start about 2 p.m. and keep a nice, cheerful pace throughout the afternoon. As I was parading through one of the villages, a kid right in front of me hit a wet patch and his motorbike slid out from under him.

This isn't something I'm proud of, but I probably shouldn't have been driving. I was exhausted. I was nodding off. I had to pull over a few times and rest just so I could keep going. I probably should've given up and found an alternative to a six hour drive at the end of a 24 hour travel day, but I was so tired I couldn't think to do anything but stay on my previously plotted course. So when I saw that kid go down, I thanked whatever power helps me out when shit gets bad that I was awake at that moment.

I slammed on my brakes and realized in a weirdly calm manner that the brakes on the car I was driving weren't nearly as responsive as the brakes I'm used to. He was on the ground and his bike was on the ground and I was almost on top of him and I still wasn't stopping, so I angled the car to head into a ditch. The brakes finally did their job as I skidded perpendicular to his head. Not to mention way closer than either of us enjoyed.

When I jumped out to see if he was hurt, he just stared at me in confusion.

It took me a few seconds to realize I'd spoken to him in English. I might have managed, "Are you okay?" in Spanish if I wasn't so exhausted and had, like, twenty minutes to prepare. Unfortunately, the nature of accidents is that you don't have twenty minutes to prepare. But he got to his feet - he had tied plastic bags to his shoes to keep them from getting wet - and walked his bike to the side of the road where people without cars and with local language skills were waiting.

Once my heart stopped racing, I followed the GPS through valleys and over jungle dense mountain tops where I finally found Nosara, a town that is - apparently - known for making tourists want to cry. I did not cry. I did curse the sky a few times and perform a lot of three-point turns and gingerly feel my molars for cracks after jolting down the bumpiest roads my skull had ever encountered.

When I finally found the place, I face planted on the bed and woke up ten hours later to find howler monkeys, mangos, and a view of the ocean.

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Ocean. Bonus: Zero death. 

Colorblind Clown Flies to Central America

Amber

I'm sitting in the Miami airport wearing the most ridiculous outfit. Every time I catch sight of myself in a reflective surface - of which airports have a regrettable number - I have to shake my head and wonder who decided it would be a good idea to let me dress myself. Pink cartoon shirt, pink sandals, fluffy yellow skirt, and obnoxious rainbow disco ball ring that I bought for Vegas and now refuse to take off. All of which lends credence to my brother's unflattering but entirely accurate assertion that I dress like a colorblind clown. After my brother and his girlfriend dropped me off at the airport, my fluffy yellow skirt and I discovered the flight was delayed. So I did a little work and entertained myself on g-chat with a friend who rode his motorcycle through South America a few years back. He told me what to order for breakfast in Costa Rica and I dutifully made notes on my phone as autocorrect inquired whether I really meant Sally Lizard instead of salsa lizano. No, iPhone. But I appreciate both your understanding of my character and your disinclination to learn Spanish.

Maybe I'm easily impressed but it still amazes me that you can sit in an airport and talk to a friend - and know that when you get where you're going, thousands of miles away, you can talk to the same friend the same way.

Nicole and I recently marveled at how you can just show up at the airport with your little bag and someone will take you to Paris. Or Turkey. Or Antarctica. Yes, you need money, but it's literally that easy. Show up, get maneuvered thousands of miles across the world and end up in the exact location you want. No more do we have to acquire a covered wagon and oxen and scale cliffs and ford rushing streams and hope to god nobody gets lost or dies along the way.

I am truly, astonishingly grateful. Not just to live in a time where all this is possible, but also that I'm able to take advantage if it, albeit in my limping so-where-exactly-is-money-coming-from-next-month kind of way. Money always appears, even when I don't yet know exactly how it will happen. If I want this life, this is part of it. For now. Soon, maybe even very soon, that will change.

This morning, we drank orange juice and flew straight into a sunrise. It made any momentary worry worth it. Because if that's not a miracle, I don't know what is.

Summer of the Traveling Panda

Amber

A few weeks ago, I found myself homeless and eating breakfast in a bowling alley in the middle of the afternoon. These are circumstances that imply my life took a wrong turn somewhere. Leaving San Francisco, maybe? Neglecting to renew my driver's license in 2007, making both airport security and the CHP really ornery? Forgetting to floss? Believe it or not, all of this is on purpose. The homeless part, not the ornery CHP part. That was a grave tactical error on my part. But that bowling alley breakfast was pure genius. Bowling alleys in West LA make perfectly crisp hash browns.

Why a Person With a Death Grip on Stability and Routine Might Willingly Go Homeless

When I was younger, I did a lot of traveling. Dropping sunglasses in the Blue Grotto, chasing peacocks in Wales, losing beach towels over the side of a boat in the Antigua harbor, having staring contests with sheep in New Zealand. (Yeah, the sheep won. I don't want to talk about it.) But according to my passport,  I haven't been out of the country in a brutally long time. So I decided to abandon the idea that a permanent address is important and start going places.

When you stop paying rent, you kinda give yourself no choice but to go places. If you need a kick in the ass, you are obligated by life to give yourself one.

Ass summarily kicked, I wandered thirteen whole blocks to Drea's apartment where her robots and dinosaurs convinced me to never leave. But we had plans for Vegas and her couch had plans to not have me on it forever, so a hotel room at the Flamingo became my temporary home. After a weekend of mindless yet responsible debauchery, we drove home to California. I drove back to Nevada twelve hours later. 'Cause that makes sense.

But it meant my office looked at this for a week:

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photo (47)

Then this, because Lake Tahoe doesn't understand May:

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photo (48)

I've always enjoyed the word nomad. It calls up images of camels and tents and oases shimmering in the distance.

Camels continue to elude me, which is sad, but I've managed an oasis. I'm leaving for Costa Rica on Saturday, where I'll set up camp for the month of June, working and wandering and doing whatever people do in Costa Rica. Surf?* Eat fish? Get lost a lot? I guess I'll find out.

* I picture myself in a Blue Crush-like montage** where I skim effortlessly through rolling blue waves and stride up the beach carrying a board under my arm. This is unlikely for any number of reasons, starting with the distinct possibility that I couldn't even lift a surfboard, much less sling it under one arm. More likely, I'd give myself a concussion and be forced to add "shark hors d'oeuvre" to my Twitter bio.

** Why give more than a passing nod to reality when you can daydream instead? Daydreams have gotten me Olympic gold medals and Justin Timberlake asking me to perform Thriller with him. (What? Justin Timberlake asks you to do other things in your daydreams?)

Anyway. Summer of the Traveling Panda. A Summer That Probably Doesn't Include Justin Timberlake.

Now I'm in the Bay Area, because my mom is in Paris and I'm watching her cat until I leave for Costa Rica. That sentence makes us sound a lot more glamorous than we really are. We are not glamorous. My mom's attempts to use an iPad make her emails resemble spam, if the spammer was a drunk elephant in Zimbabwe whose first language was Portuguese. The majority of my wardrobe looks like it was chewed on by that same drunk elephant. But we've got passports and we're using them, damn it.

It feels good to be moving again. It even feels good to have no home - like life is stuffed with possibility and adventure and I just have to decide what that adventure is going to be. In the last few weeks, I've seen the desert, the snow, and soon the South American jungle. Because when adventure calls, a panda must answer.

Even if the panda soon wonders why taking a red-eye and then driving six hours through an unfamiliar country with no GPS and no measurable sense of direction constitutes a preferable adventure to, say, a nice apartment in Amsterdam.