A year ago I was in Costa Rica. Below is the piece I wrote last summer of seismic shifts and a sarong song started in the Caribbean. I realize now I have been moving toward this life shift since childhood.
My love for travel began when I was little and my grandmother would fly me to Paris via the arm of her rocking chair. We’d eat lunch in sidewalk cafes– TV trays set up in front of her sofa. In her living room and in my heart, God planted the dream to travel and fertilized it with the gift of believing all things are possible. I knew–most days–that my deepest desires He planted would be fulfilled. And that with hope and faith, all our dreams can come true. Though F.Scott Fitzgerald and my Mama Lou never met, he seemed to model Jay Gatsby after her because she, too, had “an extraordinary gift for hope, a romantic readiness such as I have never found in any other person and which it is not likely I shall ever find again.” My grandmother loved love, beauty, and adventure. So do I.
Before she died in 2000, she told me I was destined to do something different, something great. She said God would use my sorrows as well as my strengths. No doubt when I was tiny He sowed in me a big dream… to live in a faraway land. That dream sprouted in 2005 in Italy, budded in 2013 in Puerto Viejo, and in a few months, it seems, will begin blooming in Africa. Still I know, the longest, richest journey is the one traveled within.
Three decades-deep in graduations—none my own– I returned my cap and gown to my closet, grabbed my backpack, and boarded a plane. Most Mays the first day of summer vacation launched educational tours or service trips where I’d led students from Europe to Ecuador. But May 2013 was different. I called it my No Fear Tour. The plan was to travel solo to a jungle beach house in Costa Rica’s Caribbean to test the waters for an expat life.
Puerto Viejo offered Pura Vida where I’d shed stress, brake for sloths and speak Lizard. I vowed to live-like- a -local, sleeping under a tin roof and mosquito net by a window open to a world of hibiscus and butterflies.
I chose Puerto Viejo for its diverse culture—Afro-Caribbean, Tico, and Bribri— rustic character (no electricity until 1986), and laid-back vibe. I’d slow down and take the road less traveled alongside global yogis, surfers and seekers. My gypsy soul trapped in a Southern body would bust out the bathing suit and become one with Salsa Brava and Bob Marley. At last this Baby Boomer Babe was migrating from the picket fences of the Bible Belt to perch for awhile in the Land of Boho. There I could sing “Freebird,” scout a life for the future, and relax in the now.
I had vowed as a single mom when my kids left the nest I’d fly away, too. My son would graduate college soon, so I’d explore Costa Rica (Rich Coast) to find fertile ground for my inner flower child to bloom. As a helicopter parent, I’d taught in the suburban school my kids attended K-12, been a soccer mom, and driven a Volvo station wagon.
But I’d also simultaneously modeled life-in-motion for students and my children in other ways. Chanting “Carpe Diem,” I’d learned Latin dance, wrote in support of immigration reform and international arts, and played a scene in a movie filmed about Nashville opposite a Chilean Johnny Depp. It was time to take my own advice to the next level–to cease straddling two worlds and seize the day. I wanted to go-all- Thoreau and live the life I’d imagined.
I concur with Howard Thurman who said: “Don’t ask yourself what the world needs. Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive.” Travel makes me come alive. Since summer 2005 when roosters roused me to misty morning walks on a vineyard-flanked road, I’ve known I’d teach abroad again. Though I taught English to adults at an Asti agriturisimo only one summer, the Italian students who became dear friends changed me for good. Over meals and conversations that lingered for hours, they taught me that La Dolce Vita can be tasted anywhere I embrace the moment, am grateful, and seek rich relationships.
I returned and began reading and rereading books by expats…Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, Marlena de Blasi’s A Thousand Days in Venice, Frances Mayes’ Bella Tuscany, Laura Fraser’s An Italian Affair. I couldn’t watch Under the Tuscan Sun or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel without crying because it seemed living abroad– for a year or a lifetime—was my calling. But what if it was merely a siren’s call? If I settled down in another culture, would the honeymoon wear off? Would I “find myself” living beyond borders, or feel more alone leaving family and friends in Nashville? Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love, sought guidance from a medicine man in Bali. I turned to masters of reinvention in Costa Rica. I’d followed the tales of two bloggers—Lisa, beach house owner/former Montana mom, interior designer and mural artist and Camille, yogi/former Seattle single girl and triple-career-professional. I contacted both, asking to meet with them in person to get their stories, to get inspired, to get a new life. Both had left careers, family, friends, and stilettos to make Puerto Viejo home. I’d interview them on simplifying their lives. They had chased and caught romance, beauty and adventure in an affordable paradise. I was ready to shake up my life, too.
I’d read Lisa Valencia’s blog for over a year and her book on starting over in Puerto Viejo. I’d read reviews of her Hidden Jungle Beach House and the area and talked with her by phone. She seemed like an old friend; she, too, was mom to a grown boy and girl. Our shared love for our kids, dogs, and salsa sealed the deal. On my birthday I booked my flight while she arranged my stay in San Jose when I landed. The trek to the jungle was five hours, so I’d stay the night with Lisa’s friends, Isabel and Norman, owners of Vida Tropical near the airport in Alejuela. Two weeks later I discovered This American Girl on Pinterest and wrote the author, Camille Willemain, that I’d be in Puerto Viejo in May.
A couple of months later, plans became reality as I stepped out of the taxi under an umbrella Isabel held. I checked in to this new adventure, the afternoon shower evaporated, and the sun escorted me down unfamiliar streets.
Lisa had booked the interbus to transport me from the B and B to the jungle the next morning. Tired from the flight, I was happy to wander through the small town, meeting Norman at their restaurant, Jalapeño Central Tex Mex, who seated me for dinner.
I checked out gardens, bakeries
On the ride to Puerto Viejo, tucked between banana plantations and pineapple farms, roadside rest stops looked like lush resorts. I was in Wanderland and imagined napping like Alice under a super-sized tropical leaf.
She gave me the tour of the house and pointed me toward town–just a five-minute walk away. That first day Puerto Viejo seemed a cacophonous party of reggae and revelry, motorbikes and SUVs, taxi drivers and street vendors, clubs and karaoke.
It was finally summer break, my day planner was closed for the season, and I was in paradise where the only decision I had to make was which table gave me the best view of the sea. Gathering for Happy Hour, people laughed all around me. Why wasn’t I entirely happy? As I feared, I felt… alone.
The self-talk began: Wasn’t the point of this trip to be alone…to assimilate…not to tour but to dwell? Didn’t I have work to do…to come up with a life plan, to write? To relax? Later I’d realize relaxing would be impossible while simultaneously pressuring myself to decide on the rest of my life and start writing the Great American Novel. Though I was seeking a new life in a different place I was operating as usual–setting unrealistic expectations for 13 days to justify the trip. I’d realize later that what scared me even more than not “producing” was sitting still–allowing sadness to well up with the tide– grief over lost relationships, which meant lost versions/blueprints of my life. That first day in Puerto Viejo I didn’t realize I carried grief. That my friend, Kim, is right. That with change–even positive change such as dreams realized– there comes loss. I just knew I was lonely.
This was a nice town, but it didn’t feel like my town. I forgot that I’d had the same uneasy feeling 13 years before on my first day on the Irish sea. And decades before at summer camp. Those experiences proved to be rich, but I’d traveled both times with at least one friend. This felt different, and at dusk my mood darkened. This feels a bit unsafe.
That first night I was grateful to be back in my room, the jungle insulated against all but natural noises—the crooning of frogs, the rhythm of the surf, the howling of monkeys. I fell asleep to the sound of rain on the tin roof. Although the day had steamed, the moon’s rising cued turning off the fan and pulling up the blanket. Morning smelled of bananas cooked in coconut oil and coffee brewing in the coolness of the communal kitchen. I’d fancied that trying on the expat life meant writing for hours on the porch, peering perceptively into the trees, then writing good stuff. Lisa’s dogs would be my muses. Then, I decided to let go of all ideas of what the trip “should be.” In fact, I needed to let go of a lot of things.
Before I could be Hemingway-writing-in-the-tropics I needed adventures, as he did, to fuel my memoirs. I decided I could write later. And as for deciding if, where, and when to move abroad, I needed to focus on experiencing all I could in this place–cooking classes, snorkelling, mountain hikes to waterfalls, yoga, volunteering at the local school, visiting the animal reserve, and meeting new people. Another ambitious list to replace the first one. Rather than feeling so intimidated by my new surroundings, I was rested and ready to check out the Saturday Farmer’s Market and have breakfast with Camille. Lisa had invited me to go dancing salsa that night, and I was thankful that rather than just exploring on my own, I’d spend Day Two in PV with women who called it home. The day was full of promise. And it delivered.
I met Camille at her favorite breakfast place, Bread and Chocolate, where she gave me her must-sees; and when we ran into one of her friends there, she invited me for a must-taste. He was headed to Caribeans, where she and other expats/locals gather daily. Since she was on her bike, he invited me to jump in his jeep and meet down the road for a chococcino. She showed me the tasting bar where I fell in love with 3 Kings (72% dark chocolate with cinnamon, cardamom and nutmeg) to melt in my drink. There are no words.
After salsa with Lisa and friends that night, I beach-hopped the next day. At Playa Cocles, I biked by Camille who was working reception at OM and blogging.
Life was great. I’d ridden solo all day and enjoyed it. I felt as brave as Kate from Lost as I’d explored deserted jungle roads in a new world that was feeling more familiar each day. I was all about the journey, not just the destination. Whether or not I’d move to Costa Rica longterm, I felt affirmed in my decision to be there in that moment. I was gaining confidence each day for a bigger move in the future.
As I’d hoped, this trip was rocking my world.
Day 5 at 4 AM, a 5.8 earthquake with an epicenter 18 miles away rattled me from bed. Grinding seismic shifts muted my Bohemian Rhapsody as I hurried outside with my barf bag. I’d gotten sick since the night before in a restaurant restroom. Housemates had hustled me home, and I’d hoped to sleep it off but had been in the bathroom hourly all night. Online reports said a tsunami warning might be issued, and I heard waves pounding the beach. I’d seen The Impossible, fancying myself the fearless mom played by Naomi Watts. My shaking bed and spewing vomit morphed me into The Exorcist’s Linda Blair. I called my sister, asked her to pray, and trembled in the dark.
The quake ended, but by noon, fever and dehydration landed me in the Emergency Clinic. As the doctor started my IV, he said I’d probably gotten sick from bacteria in tap water–that though I’d been drinking bottled water when out and purified water at Lisa’s, some restaurants use tap water for ice. Later I remembered running out of bottled water when beach-hopping by bike. Trying to cool off, I’d swallowed a gallon of ocean when a riptide pulled me into a spin cycle faster than I could close my mouth. A sand and seawater cocktail was not what the doctor would have ordered. Nor, probably, was grilled meat I’d eaten on the street. He told me to eat bananas, prescribed antibiotics, and said I’d be sun-sensitive.
Foggy from meds, I felt my emptied stomach now packed with emotional baggage. Even if I could eat or swim again, the $280 medical bill (though, thankfully, far less than an ER visit in the US), ate up my cooking class and snorkeling cruise. Volunteering, hiking, yoga might not happen. I realized I had needed this trip to be a victory. It was my way of fighting back my greatest fear—being left behind. I’d always thought by the time my kids left I’d be remarried. I’d been single since they were three and six. My ex had remarried the previous fall, but I was still alone. My best friend and I had made a pact we’d move to Italy and buy Vespas should neither of us find love. I’d been her maid-of-honor that spring. I knew princes don’t rescue us, but I did want a life partner, too. Until then, I worked hard to find happiness and contentment solo.
Still sans glass slipper, I strapped on my Chacos to plant my feet on foreign soil because travel had always made me feel alive. But that night I felt sick and sad. I berated myself. My trip was a test and I’d failed. How could I have made the rookie mistakes of not being more careful with what I ate and drank? Then, I made the biggest bad move of all.
Spiralling, focusing on the negatives, I criticized myself for following my heart–for wanting something new. Something different. Conjuring a mental movie of my trip thus far, I edited all the good scenes. Cut was my Technicolor trek to Puerto Viejo over glassy rivers. Cut was the conversation with Camille started at breakfast and continued into the afternoon. Cut was Saturday night salsa and Sunday afternoon wine shared with Lisa as we enjoyed her amazing rooftop view. Both women were authentic, the real deal–different but the same in sharing their joys and challenges as single expats. But the night of the earthquake and illness I couldn’t shake my tremors. Fear darkened my vision, temporarily blurring the beautiful sarongs for sale blowing in the breeze or rainbow boats bobbing in Puerto Viejo bay.
I wasn’t Costa Rican cool. I was Lucille Ball ludicrous… minus Desi. Sloshing coffee down the plane’s aisle when my backpack burst. Perpetually paranoid since arriving in Puerto Viejo because the US Embassy and locals warned I should be on guard against theft. Indignant when a stray dog trampled me on Playa Negra, leaving black sand paw prints across my back. Seeing girls my daughter’s age at The Lazy Mon, and fearing I was too old to begin again.
And, ever the romantic, I was disappointed my only vacation crush was the ER doctor. I fell asleep watching Twilight in Spanish.
I awoke to sunshine and roosters crowing. I threw off my blanket. The jungle had simmered down and so had I. I drank healing coconut water thanks to Oscar, Lisa’s gardener. He’d returned with his machete to cut more fruit and happily called: “Hi Cindy! You look much better today!”
He showed me pictures on his phone of creature encounters with frogs, snakes, bats, lizards, and hummingbirds. Later in town, he waved to me as he pushed his son’s stroller. Tonja, my German housemate, wave- watched with me from Salsa Brava Bistro’s porch. I braved a plate of white rice. Nothing ever tasted so good.
I passed Doc who didn’t recognize me, then grinned. “Ah! You look like a new person. Remember, no dairy!” That night in Lisa’s kitchen, Tonja, who had taught Latin dance in Hanover, showed us merengue moves. The rest of the week I was back in the saddle. I beach-hopped-on-bikes again, this time with Tonja, and I finally took Camille’s advice and bought a sarong. No longer weighed down by my wet beach towel, fears or insecurities, I’d never felt more light, more thankful, and more free.
Breaking my live-like-a-local rule, I accepted tourist treatment when I ate at Banana Azul and waiters offered me the pool and a thatched umbrella over a beach lounger. I watched children play in the surf, made a new friend, and saw the sunset.
I learned there are tears in paradise because some things we can’t escape. Nature’s beauty broke me open to grieve relationships lost that had promised life as it “should be” and to recognize courage gained by embracing instead “what is.” I was not living a Plan B life. I was living Plan A. Divorce and being single again had been terrifying territory but it forced me to make new friends, to pursue new interests, to see new lands. I saw the importance of community wherever, whenever we skid off the grid, at home and in faraway places.
I was welcomed into a Mayberry of reggae and revelry, beards and dreads. Like Camille said: “Puerto Viejo is a town of misfits. You can be anything and no one will judge you. They’ll cheer you on.” They did. So did family and friends via Facebook. Wherever you go, there you’ll be. More than finding the happiest place to live, I wanted to prove I could live happy anywhere. I don’t’ know if I’ll flee the country for a simpler life, but I know now that regardless of geography, I’ll be fine with God as my guide through the most familiar and sometimes scary territory, the Land of Me. I stopped justifying the trip as a mission and pressuring myself to scout, to decide, to plan the next move or the next year. I learned to just enjoy. To just BE. Marley’s mantra, “Every little thing, is going to be alright,” became my own.
In the pool that last day, for the first time in my life, I floated on my back without my feet sinking. I’d been told the trick is to relax—something I’d never done before. Toes above the water, heart afloat, I did it.