Costa Rica

*While I’m writing about the end of my travels, and what I’ve been doing since, here is a story I wrote about a vacation to Costa Rica in 2015:

My vacation to Costa Rica started when my best friend left for Bangkok.  I was going to meet him there and travel with him.  But once I had a chance to buy a plane ticket they doubled in price.  Wanting to go somewhere still, and being alone, it was now up to me to find a place.  I knew it would have to be south, and green, warm, with an ocean to play in.   The tickets to CR were affordable and the lodging there was also at the level of austerity I was looking for.

My budget was not very much, with one pay check saved I went to sleep Friday night in Toronto and the next night I was sleeping in a hostel in San Jose, Costa Rica.  Two weeks to explore, get a tan and make it back for my flight home.  In between I really didn’t have any plans.  I had a four hour bus ride to Cahuita and a cabina waiting there for me, but other than that I felt free to walk slow, look up, get lost, and explore.

My phone didn’t update the time change when I arrived and I didn’t notice until the next morning.  I woke up at what I thought was 7 a.m. but really it was 5, to walk to a park with my camera, and get coffee and check out an enormous grave yard nearby.  I left my hostel, and it was still dark.  I was confused with the whereabouts of the sun.  Maybe it was hiding behind the mountains to the south of the city. I walked for hours and saw the sun rise. I bought a coffee from a soda, which is any local restaurant.  Ordered it to go and 10 minutes later there was a brown paper bag with a coffee inside with a spoon and cream and sugar.  I took out my cup and paid 500 colons (about one American dollar) and continued on towards the mountains.

Anywhere you point your camera in central America makes for a good picture, especially during sunrise, which is around 5:30, and sun set which is 12 hours later.

After experiencing the wilderness of San Jose and the extensive grave yard, with graves not buried but in tombs, I packed up my room and headed for the bus station.  My room didn’t take long to clean up; just one small back pack, and my camera bag.  Two weeks later in the same room on my way home, I’d leave with even less because I ended up trading my sweater, pants, rain jacket and books for help and knowledge in Cahuita.  None of those things were any use to me,  without them my bag was all the more lighter.

Downtown San Jose was kind of a shock, even on Sunday morning. The streets are narrow, dirty, full of food, garbage, stray animals, sleeping people, lots of motor bikes, delivery trucks, cheap knock offs of everything, and fresh food being displayed all over for locals to come and enjoy.  Every street has a deep open gutter along both sides instead of drains or man holes, people stop at stop signs if they feel like it, I was asked for money several times, and told to be careful if I was going to walk and not take a cab.  My cab ride from the airport to the center of San Jose was a great start. I agreed that although it is a huge rip off to take a cab, it was safer, and my driver was very helpful.  He brought me to a place near the bus station as I had asked, but at the hotel they couldn’t get the cash register to work and after maybe 20 tries I told them I’d find some cash. So I walked out and decided to look around first, the cab was still outside and he saw me leave which was suspicious.  I turned a corner and went down a one way street, he followed, going the wrong way and pulled over with the window down to ask what was wrong.  A quick explanation and he said get back in, I told him that his $30 ride there was all I had, later I would find out that the city bus goes straight to the airport for 250 colons.  He said it didn’t matter and drove me around until we found a nice hostel and he waited out front until he got the o.k. to leave having acquired a room.  What a great way to start my trip, I had been reading about serendipity and synchronicity and keeping notes on good things that happen over my travels, and he kicked it off right.  And to add to that on my way home he was at the airport and we chatted about my trip and he wished me luck, shook my hand and said good bye.

At the bus stop I bought my ticket to Cahuita, bought a fruit smoothie and a pastry and waited in the sun for my bus.  It was about 30 degrees and for some reason people didn’t feel like opening their windows even though there was obviously no air conditioning on the bus. We drove out of the city and it got cooler as we ascended the mountains, everything turned green, and moist and fresh.  The air transformed from smog to mountain dew. The view on both sides was enormous trees, water falls, deep canyons, mountain tops and sharp drops down into oblivion right outside my window.  Squeezed into my seat without much room for my arms since the person next to me maybe needed two seats for her size.  At least I wasn’t one of the several people who were sold tickets but did not get a seat for the four hour hot and sweaty trip.

We stopped once in Limon, and that was my first look at the local cuisine. Realizing it might be a bit of a challenge to remain vegetarian I was determined to succeed.  I bought a bottle of water and ate some of the nuts from Toronto. Another hour or so on the highway and we pulled down a dirt road past houses on stilts, open concept homes surrounded by gates, with no glass in their windows, rows and rows of banana fields, palm trees, and green everywhere.  We drove a little closer to the ocean and stopped in a pharmacy parking lot, I thought everyone was getting out but it was just me and another couple.  I walked to the end of the parking lot and sat back down and waited for a drive to my reserved cabina. It never came.  I found my place on a map, bought a bag of chips and some more water and walked a small section of paved road to the end of town and turned left onto a dusty, dirt and rock road along the beach.  The road splits a path between palm trees and ocean on one side and deep jungle on the other.  I walked and walked and walked.  And finally checked into my cabina, one room, a bed, desk, fan, lamp, and shelf with hooks. Hammock on the outside, and a bathroom a few steps away.  And if there weren’t so many trees and plants and flowers I could see the Caribbean Sea.

I dropped my stuff and walked straight into the crystal clear, bath tub temperature water.  Amazed to see that the beach was empty of people, no debris, no junk or coral, no sea weed just clean clear water.

The cash situation there was a little weird, they had one ATM and it was attached to the bank, it only gave out $100 American at a time and increments of 2,000 colons. Both are kind of useless there, a coffee is 500 colons and no one wants to make change for either currency.  I didn’t pay for my room until the day I left, only a few days later, which is in another part of the story.  I had to ride my bike to the bank every day and take out $100 at a time, which came with a fee of around $10 from my bank, and the exchange rate totaling somewhere around $140 each time I used the machine.  After two days of doing this I was putting my cash in my hat where I kept my room key and didn’t take my card from the ATM fast enough and it was sucked back in.  Since it was after 5 I knocked on the door and a man with a gun came to the window and told me I’d have to come back in the morning.  They open “around” 9 a.m. That didn’t really bother me, the card would be safe there for the night and I had my cash.  The next morning I got up with the sun, went to the beach, stretched, or did “yoga” basically alone. There was a regular crew of joggers who would pass by while I was in tree pose, and I’d always say hi, even later when I’d see them in town.  The sun would come up over a bed of clouds that was constantly on the horizon turning the sky a myriad of reds and oranges.  After breakfast, banana pancakes, fresh fruit, and lots of coffee, I got on my rental bike. A laid back beach cruiser with a back pedal brake. Biked along the bumpy dusty, already hot road to town, which was about two km away along the beach.  There was a line outside the bank, it was 9 a.m. I lined up with everyone and tried to stay out of the direct sunlight.  Soon the door opened and a couple of guys with guns let people in one at a time.  When it was my turn they asked what I needed and I told them, he asked me to take a number and sit down, my first and last experience with air conditioning and it was miraculous.  I didn’t wait long before my number was called, I sat down, and explained best I could, the man left his little glass box and came back with my card a few minutes later.  He set it down in front of me on the other side of his glass shield and asked if it was mine.  Then asked for identification, I came prepared with my passport.  Then he left again.  Came back with a big sheet of paper and started filling it out.  Then he messed up one of the columns so he left again.  When he came back he very slowly filled out a new form.  Then he left.  My passport and debit card staring me in the face.  I was enjoying the AC too much to care.  He came back and got me to sign the paper, then he left and when he came back he slid my stuff through a hole and said good bye.

After a couple days in my original cabina, the noise from the bar down the road was too much.  They had base music playing until after midnight, and since it got dark so early and the road didn’t have any lights,  I was inside or in my hammock reading or listening to podcasts and could not get a moment of silence.  My fan barely kept me cool, the WiFi came and went on a whim, and someone moved in above and beside me, rooms which were previously empty. I was no longer alone on a deserted island, I was just another cheapo traveler.  On day two, a nice sunny day, after my hair cut at the bus station, grocery shopping for water, chips, local fruit, bread and peanut butter, I went to the beach for a swim and to lay on the sand.  Again I was basically alone, except for a few locals on daily walks.  No sunscreen, no hat, and since the weather forecast was unpredictable I decided to have my day on the beach.  I floated in the water, jumped around, sat on the bottom of the ocean, let the wave’s crash against me and lay under an almond tree on the beach.  After a couple hours I decided to move on, not really understanding what I had done to myself or how close that part of the world is to the sun.  The walk back to my area was under one minute, I took an outdoor shower to clean off, a couple people stared but that was normal.  Upon entering my room my skin dried and became un-ignorably painful.  I checked the mirror and my bright red shorts matched my bright red face, shoulders, chest, stomach, legs and feet.  Leaving the skin under my shorts a pale, Toronto winter, never-seen-the-light of-day-white.  Quite the contrast, I wanted to have a tan, to not stand out as the whitest man on the Caribbean, but that kind of backfired and now I was the red guy who was obviously in pain.  I moisturized as much as I could, they don’t seem to sell moisturizer there.  I used an entire little travel bottle, tried to lie down but could not.  I sat by my fan and tried to read.  Desperate, dying, horrified at what I had done so early into my trip, and now I didn’t know if I was ever going to see the sun again, ever wear a backpack again, ever lay down again.  I jumped on my bike, hat on, an open shirt stretched across my shoulders with a great struggle, barefoot, and took off down the road in search of a breeze, some shade, maybe even some aloe vera or help.  I took a dip in the ocean to cool off and continued on.  Soon my rusty rental bike decided to give up on me, the steer tube seized and I no longer had any say in which direction the bike would go.  Embarrassed enough already, sweating, sun burned, lost, falling off my bike, stupid tourist, people would say hola and continue on their way, as I pleaded in my head for help.  I walked the bike a distance, hit it with a rock, dropped it a couple times and got it to ride straight for another little bit.  Eventually I found a small path into the jungle, ditched the bike and started walking. I passed old house foundations, pineapple trees, saw a blue frog, and soon found a giant tree giving adequate shade.  Some of the trees there are so big and old they have other trees growing on them, they are covered in vines, buttress roots, animals, nests, birds, monkeys, sloths, real living things standing in the heat.  I sat quietly with my eyes open, just observing my breath, which is how I’ve been taught to meditate, sitting perfectly still, cross legged, until I cooled off.  It didn’t take long before a butterfly landed on a nearby log.  Then a multicolored bird on a branch in front of me. Then a lizard walked past.  As I stared into an open space it became clear I was looking at a massive spider web, pretty soon the ants started to bite, and God knows what else was nipping at my bare, sensitive skin.  So as I had felt earlier and often while swimming in the current, I was being kicked out of nature, time for me to move on.  The sun was about to come down and I really didn’t know which way I had come.  Wandering, I came back to my bike, rode it until it broke down and walked the rest of the way.  I passed homes without doors, guarded only by a couple mean looking dogs.  Laundry drying on lines, dirt floors, wells, no electricity for some people, they would sit by the front of the house catching the last of the light and play cards until dark.  I did not feel very welcome there either, walked past until I saw a medicinal plant sign, and heard reggae coming from a property.  I took my chances and went inside.  There was a water sprinkler I immediately walked into for relief.  Everything was blooming, perfumed, beautifully green and I immediately felt better.  There was an aloe vera stem just sitting there so I grabbed it and rubbed the cool green slime all over me.  Then I heard someone coming up the path with a wheelbarrow.  Fernando introduced himself, to my delight in perfect English, and reassured me that he could help with my burn.  Holy sweet Jesus what a beautiful thing to hear.

Journal Entry: “I met Fernando by chance while biking on a single lane road seemingly endless when you’re lost and at the time dying of a sun burn from the CR Pura Vida.  A nice day at the beach turned into what I thought could be a medical emergency.  After trying stuff from the pharmacia I went on a bike ride to be in the shade and get away from the town.  I rode past a Medicinal Plants sign and wow I was intrigued wondering if there could be a cure for my burning red skin.  I was too embarrassed to just charge in there so I rode on until my bike broke and I walked back a bit and ventured inside toward the reggae music.  I saw gardens with Spanish signs telling what each thing is, a greenhouse, a yoga center with calming vibes.  It was a labyrinth of green, I felt better already but where is everyone?  I saw a man whistling while he worked in the garden and he introduced himself with a big smile and friendly handshake.  I showed him my predicament and he assured me he could help.  I was ecstatic!  He gave me a glass of water and gave me the tour.”

Fernando showed me around his garden, his library, tea room, yoga space, sauna, his own chocolate making operation, and pointed out some cactus that I could come back for tomorrow after spending the night applying the aloe he gave me to my skin.  We biked back to town together and ran into Anna from Salt Lake City, Utah, who was staying with him.  He biked ahead to keep an appointment and Anna and I talked about our travels.  She is an Uber driver and sells shoes on EBay that she gets from the Mormon Church.  Once we met back up with Fernando we came across a caterpillar, big fuzzy guy crossing the road and Anna stopped and got very close and pointed him out. Fernando took one look and cautioned her not to touch it since it would paralyze her.  He is a photo guide and snorkeling instructor, and was able to identify all the trees, plants, animals, (even the elusive sloth), insects, just about anything that is in Costa Rica he knows about.  He was born and raised in that small town and growing up he taught himself English, German, and Italian and learned French while living in Montreal. He is always active in the community and has families visit his property with a focus on educating kids on the importance of protecting the environment.  The importance of plants, and plant medicine. He learned that kids can transfer those lessons to their parents and family better than anyone else.  He quickly became the center of my trip and someone I still e-mail with and look up to very much.

The next day I could not do my usual stretching on the beach, although I tried, it was too painful.  So I took a walk with one of the dogs from the hotel, named Chaplin. He was one of the many dog friends I made along with Bella and Scotty, the littlest dude who would bark and run in front of every car that came or went.  I had my breakfast, and took a good look in the mirror to see blisters had formed covering my shoulders.  The owner of the hotel saw I was in pain and got me more aloe and went to the pharmacia for ointment that didn’t work.  Since I couldn’t go out in the sun I waited for cloud cover to leave and find Fernando.  He was working so I biked into the jungle, found some shade and took pictures of monkeys swinging from tree to tree.  Some of the trees there have leaves well over eight feet long, everything is over grown, perfumey, completely psychedelic and awe inspiring.  There were trails through the forest for humans and mammals as well as little trails within them made by ants, solid lines of carpenter ants combining to about five inches across and going for miles, carrying small cuts of leaves back to their queen.  It was so hot the entire time that I lost 10 pounds.  Just standing around looking at ants I could feel the sweat dripping off of me.  After looking around I realized that my cabina was basically in a very busy spot and I’d be happier a little further from town.  So I stopped in at one place which was very fancy, she wanted $75 a night, I left and the next place down the road had a hand painted sign just saying cabina. I biked up their driveway to a massive gate surrounding their house, past the little cabin I saw for rent. The fence was mechanical and about 20 feet high, three dogs barked ferociously and Angie came out, she showed me the place. It had a kitchen, sofa, bathroom, ceiling fan, big comfy bed, two nice windows looking out at the jungle and through to the ocean, she wanted $20 a night.  I did the four km ride to the bank, back to my original spot, packed, paid up there and moved on down the road.  This new place was isolated, no street lights, no music, no neighbors, no problems.  Plus it was much closer to Fernando.  As I was biking to and from all these places a taxi drove past with him and Anna in it, and I got three friendly waves. That was the first of many times I’d feel like a local.

After one day of applying aloe his next treatment was a combination of prickly pear cactus, locally called tuna, and a clay mixture that he helped me spread over my back and shoulders, and a custom made moisturizer for cooling off my skin at night to help me sleep.  This guy had the cure and prevention for everything. At his place he had cocoa growing, vanilla, plantains, some plants he claimed were aphrodisiac, red bananas, sugar leaves, coco nut, antioxidants, perfumes, everything.  He even showed me how to use their big ants to give yourself stitches in a pinch, and taught me about the history and geography Costa Rica.  The clay dried up the blisters, and the cream helped me get over the pain so I could sleep, the cactus cooled off my skin so it could heal. After two days of this my sun burn was gone and I was able to see the light of day again.  Tentatively I ventured out, back into the ocean, in very short increments. Biking mostly well before noon and after 4 p.m. After one of our hang outs I asked about his parents and he told me his mom owns a vegetarian restaurant in town. The next day I introduced myself to his mom Edith and would visit with her every day after that.  Saying goodbye to her was one of the hardest parts of leaving. Sitting with her I met locals, heard all the gossip, read from the bible while she read from her Spanish version. She answered any questions I had, introduced me to her family, and one night while I was there on my way home I even saw one of her grandsons get arrested by the police up the street for smoking a joint.  So much activity for a town of 3000 people.  One day I woke up with a bug bite that worried me, she gave me a special potion that helped my circulation, clearing up my skin, it worked immediately.  It was a very bitter root extract from a tree called hombre grande.  While I was drinking it, sip by sip a man selling honey came into the restaurant and they spoke in Spanish about how awful it tasted.  Though he was a burly old man he could not stand the taste even if it did cure bug bites.  She said that locals don’t really get bothered by bugs anyway, something to do with their skin, and the taste of their blood.

Soon on my morning commute for breakfast of gallo pinto, which is rice, beans, toast, eggs and tomato and lots of coffee, I was waving to the same people every day, nodding at fellow cyclists, saying hola, good morning to people I’d pass.  I felt more and more like a local, and it was a great feeling getting to know the town beyond the regular tourist perspective.  It was easy to make friends once you gave them some business, or stopped and talked, and being from Canada was a benefit, it seemed to be a connection lots of people had, either they had been here, had family here or just heard how great it is here.  One day after visiting Edith I was biking along the dusty road with canopy on both sides, just minding my business, breathing in the perfumed air, beautiful blue sky, warm wind on my freshly peeled skin, totally engulfed in the moment when to the left in my peripheral something like a small furry man busted through the dense brush along the road and came out on all fours scrambling across the road, it was a monkey! And it was heading right for me, I was going at a good pace, and he was rushing to get back into his territory when we collided. I slammed on the brakes, causing a flat tire, another long story, then we were both just there in the road, him knocked down, me standing over my bike, both in total shock.  One second later he gathered himself up and disappeared on the other side of the road.  I felt like that was some sort of sign, some insane timing, an omen maybe.  I had to tell someone so I texted my mom and went over it again in my head like it was some sort of dream.  When I told Fernando about it the next day he was not surprised, it is something that happens apparently.  Humans have put a road in the middle of their canopy and in order to get from tree to tree sometimes they have to cross that road, and it’s not always at a cross walk.  So I’ve had a face to face with a monkey, howler monkeys and roosters notify me of the rising and setting of the sun, the monkeys even howl when it rains, giving praise to the rain gods.  I’ve seen all the plants, the toucans, a manatee, amazing blue and yellow fish bigger than my torso, enormous cockroaches, but still no sloths.  They are supposed to be the local ambassadors, and according to Fernando they are everywhere, all you need is to know where to look.

I wrote a haiku about my two weeks:

The sun sets early                                                                                                                                  Caterpillars can kill you

Shirts, shoes, not required


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