Disclosure: Thank you, VisitSarasota.com and partners, for the hospitality, education, and fun. Readers, as always, the opinions here are my own. This last feature of a 3-part series celebrating Florida’s Cultural Coast pays tribute to Sarasota’s crown jewel, The Ringling. The 66-acre complex of world-class art and circus museums, an educational center, a glass … Read more Behind-the-Scene Tour of The Ringling, Crown Jewel of Florida’s Cultural Coast
Disclosure: A big thank you to VisitSarasota for the gracious hospitality. As always, the opinions here are my own. Please note: Decisions about traveling during the pandemic are important and personal. CDC guidelines are here. As I do when home, I take precautions, such as choosing restaurants and activities with outdoor seating/spaces, and on planes wearing … Read more Sarasota County, Florida’s Cultural Coast, Offers Best of All Worlds: Part 1
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I’m honored and humbled to be listed with bloggers I admire for their adventurous spirits, humor, and commitment to inspiring and equipping those planning to travel or live abroad. Just a few mentions from the list…
“What will be your moment this summer?” asked Jodie as eighteen coworkers sat Indian style on our apartment complex rooftop under a full moon.
A packed school year had ended with high energy and emotion— Moroccan Heritage Day, ASM’s 20th Anniversary Celebration, Graduation, our final faculty meeting sending some of us off for summer…others for good. Tears, hugs, and kisses had given way to a mellow mood. I’d sat in circles with colleagues over the last two years not only discussing work but life. Good times gathered around turkeys at our annual Thanksgiving dinners, birthday cakes, desert camp fires, and pools…challenging times around family members sick at home or a loved one in a hospital bed in Marrakesh after an emergency appendectomy…confusing times as we wondered what was going on with sad world events and the US Presidential race. The next day we’d disperse all over the globe—many traveling for ten weeks and some going home for summer. I couldn’t imagine not seeing these people again in August at our annual Welcome Back rooftop cookout.
“So…your moment? What will be that thing you can’t wait to do?”
“Hang gliding over the fjords,” said Sylvie. We’d hiked in the mountains together and she biked to school—a trek that took our bus 30 minutes to make. She’d been to Nepal last Christmas, hosted our annual Thanksgiving meal in her apartment, and shown me an amazing French cheese store and bakery in our neighborhood.
“What about you, Jodie?”
“Driving a scooter on the coast of Crete,” she beamed. “You know, I can’t believe we are living this life. We’re going to Greece! I always thought if I did do something like that it would be the trip of a lifetime. Now we take school breaks and say, ‘Want to go to Paris? Tickets are $20.’” She sat beside her husband, Jordan, as she did daily on the bus. They had raised four children and now the empty nesters were loving their first year of freedom abroad. Their summer plans also included doing the Camino de Santiago alone. Both witty, she’d sit on the outside on the bus each morning energetically singing, laughing, and proposing we contact the show, “Pimp my Ride” to enter our bus for a makeover. By afternoon his soft –spoken zingers, naturally timed with hers, made them a comedy duo. Both have huge hearts and when they’d kiss each other bye as she turned down the kindergarten wing and he headed to the middle school to start their days, I smiled. Jodie and I had bonded as moms and bloggers. She’d recorded my southern accent reading a children’s book for her students and we’d held babies together at the orphanage.
“Jordan?” We looked at the other half of the Dynamic Duo.
“I’m excited about the history in Greece and I also look forward to just reading books on the beach.”
“Mike?” He’d taught in Ecuador last year and we all loved his one-of-a-kind laugh.
“Having a beer made at a monastery that has produced it since 1050.” He was meeting his dad in Germany and then would continue onto several other countries.
“Jason?” We turned to half of another kind couple.
“Seeing my new nephew who is now six months old,” he grinned. Jason had taught middle school in our English department, would be upper school principal next year, and headed a writing workshop at the beach last spring. I’d taken yoga from his Irish fiancé from Belfast, Siobhan, a doctor, blogger, and all-around Renaissance woman. They’d met in Costa Rica where he was teaching and both have hearts of gold.
“Thelma?” Thelma and Laurance, also empty nesters, had been in my yoga class and writing workshop. They’d owned a café in Nicaragua where she was from and had given me valuable tips on The Dominican Republic where they vacationed. Their daughter, pretty and sweet like her mother, was studying close by in Nice. Both dedicated teachers, Laurance was a talented screenwriter and made us laugh. Both helped me lighten up by encouraging me to sell my house as they had done to allow for travel and expat life in this new season.
“Seeing a national park Laurance and I have always wanted to visit in Croatia.”
“Rachel?” The age of my daughter, she sat beside me as she did most mornings on the bus. Eliza was sleeping strapped to her chest. She’d taught me how to do a bun I now call “The Rachel” because it saved me from heat and bad hair days. Her husband, Jon, had tutored me in photography and painting. He’d led the Marrakesh Photo Walk last fall and was an amazing artist who first came to Morocco to do commissioned work. I’d seen Eliza grow from a month old infant to a toddler in dog ears. We’d laughed and prayed together and I’ll miss them so much. They are moving to Casa.
“Seeing my mom again who has been sick. It will also be special for Jon’s grandmother to meet Eliza for the first time.”
Other destinations included Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar, and Korea. We traveled every school break during the year and traded stories to plan future trips. My coworkers were from ten countries I can think of—probably more: Canada, Russia, Scotland, England, the Philippines, Australia, Portugal, France, Morocco, and the US. Fellow Americans were from Oregon, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Colorado, Virginia, West Virginia, Michigan, Texas. They’d attended schools like Berkeley and taught previously from Alaska to Las Vegas to Harvard. Overseas they’d taught in the Bahamas, Costa Rica, Europe, Korea, Malaysia, Japan, Indonesia, the Middle East….
I hope Tennyson was right when he said, “I am a part of all I’ve met.” Though we are from different places, backgrounds, and religions and teach students aged three to eighteen, we are all committed to being part of something bigger than ourselves. Together we worked hard and tried to love each other and our kids well. We respected each other. We collaborated. We listened. We lived out hope before our students. To be part of the solution rather than shout and shame others over the problems. To mute voices that promote negativity, fear, hate. To believe in and fight for a world of peace and understanding. I’ll miss these guys and am forever grateful for the community.
“I’m glad I met you Cindy McCain. What’s your moment?” Jodie asked before I hugged her bye and headed down to my packed apartment. “Hanging out with your kids–a movie night in perhaps?”
“Exactly,” I smiled.
That was just over a week ago. As I post this I see on Facebook Ritchie thrilled to be with her aunt in Milan, Emily having a big time in Germany thanks to the kindness of strangers, Todd and Jose on the beach in Portugal, Jodie surrounded by statues in Crete with hands in the air giving Julie a shout out for her signature pose. Moments in Morocco and beyond. We’ll remember.
I will miss Ritchie, my dear friend, and my sweet neighbors across the hall, Christopher, who kept my Mac running and provided karaoke for everyone, Bevs who fed me Filipino cuisine, and their three little ones who grew so fast and made me laugh.
Just before our 7:15 AM commute, teachers dashed to the hanut (mini market) next to our apartment complex for egg sandwiches, clementines, or whatever else we needed for the day. Likewise, when we dragged off the bus at 5 PM needing water, gas for our stoves, vegetables for dinner, or fresh mint for tea, this young man welcomed us in with a smile and asked about our day. He and his brothers work seven days a week until 10 PM–always friendly no matter how high the temperature or how many locals stormed the counter.
Mary (below) and her husband own Les Jardins de Bala–my favourite Sunday lunch spot where Anu, another teacher, celebrated her birthdays and my guest including my kids loved. We taught Mary’s sweet son, and I enjoyed her French flair for fashion. On the right is a chic dress she designed for 200 DH/$20 USD which included the cost of fabric and a tailor. She is beautiful inside and out.
How I miss Sayida. She kept the Woods and me organized and was nanny to their three children. Coming home to a spotless apartment, clothes and sheets washed, and dinner ready and mint tea brewed was a treat I’ll never forget. Just before I left, she surprised me with this beautiful gift. She was a Godsend and a great friend.
My Saturdays in Marrakesh are spent hunting and gathering, hanging out and sometimes haggling. Though I may have errands to run, there’s no yard to keep, house to clean, or car to wash. Shopping in stores, on the street, and in the market followed by lunch in the mix or above it is a time to stock up, catch up with friends, relax.
Grabbing Grub in Gueliz
Moving to Morocco meant giving up a car and Kroger to fill my trunk with food for the week. It also meant leaving my deck grill–which I used for most meals come rain, snow, or sunshine. In the suburbs of Nashville we drove everywhere for everything. Though Target was the distance of about a city block away, it never occurred to me (or anyone I knew) to walk there and lug groceries home.
I’d always romanticized the way Meg Ryan in movies set in New York City built her dinner bag-by-bag as she strolled home from work. I thought it would be fun to live in the Big Apple, no worries over car insurance or repairs and fresh produce on every street corner. I never dreamed I’d get a version of that in Africa.
In my neighborhood of Gueliz, “the New City,” I can do a Meg Morning–picking vegetables from sidewalk carts (though here they are pulled by donkeys), choosing meat from the butcher’s display case, grabbing a loaf of bread from the bakery, and buying roses at flower stalls (a dozen for $2 ). For birthday treats or holiday feasts, there are French-style specialty shops selling cheeses and desserts. To save time, I still default to a weekly one-stop-shop, either Carrefour (a French chain that carries imported prosciutto/other pork and wine) or Acima whose citron (lemon) tarts are amazing. Though I know to buy only what I can carry in my backpack and bag for several blocks, I optimistically overstuff both. Harnessing a too-heavy backpack too many times has led to a torn shoulder over the last two years, but I’m stronger for the walking and enjoy the fresh air.
“But my favorite remained the basic roast chicken. What a deceptively simple dish. I had come to believe that one can judge the quality of a cook by his or her roast chicken. Above all, it should taste like chicken: it should be so good that even a perfectly simple, buttery roast should be a delight.” —Julia Child, My Life in France
For a dinner with friends, I bought a whole, herb-roasted chicken with potatoes from La Maison du Poulet. The owner proudly said his birds are free range and organic. The taste would make Julia Child shrilly shriek with pleasure.
With no rent, utilities, or transportation to work to pay, my weekly budget is $100 which covers groceries (I cook a dutch oven of beef stew, shrimp chowder, chili, or coq au vin on Sunday that is dinner until Thursday and make salads or pasta for lunches), a restaurant with friends or takeout on weekends, a pool day here and there, weekly yoga (or my first year, Moroccan dance lessons) and having the apartment cleaned twice a month. Some coworkers have ladies who clean, cook, or provide childcare multiple times weekly, but my one bedroom only requires cleaning/clothes washed every other Friday for 200 Dirhams per month ($20). When I want Moroccan food, for an additional 50 dirhams ($5) and 70-80 dirhams ($7-8 for groceries), Saida, an amazing lady, cooks so much chicken couscous and vegetables that I have enough for 8 meals so must freeze some. Lack of preservatives in meats, breads, vegetables, and fruits means I have to use what I buy faster and shop more often, but I’m healthier for that.
Haggling and Hanging Out in the Old City
Sometimes I saunter through the souqs in search of great shots. Below are guys I was thrilled to find. Pillow cases and poufs are ubiquitous but it took me a year to find someone who sells stuffing. Some coworkers paid their maids to have it done, but I was determined to find the place myself and with Kate’s help finally did.
What a difference a day can make…and a year…and a decade…and a destiny. In August I move to Morocco.
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
and a church where I sat a spell in thanksgiving for colorful canaries carousing in trees outside.
The next morning, I had breakfast with other guests from Canada and Washington, DC, and told Nicolás I’d return to his house the night before I’d fly home.
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.
When I arrived at Lisa’s, she had just screened my bedroom window–a lovely surprise for me, a grievance groused by her cat.
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.
I pedaled to Playa Chiquita and Punta Uva, stopping to watch some Sunday afternoon soccer and to play in the surf.
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.
I went horseback riding with Lisa and Raul, a Nicaraguan who spots everything in trees from almonds to iguanas. We started in the mountains and weaved through jungle along the beach.
Priscilla, a BriBri, taught me how to make chocolate. She cut the cacao from her yard and introduced me to her mom.
I ate the fresh catch at Mopri’s.
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.