Do you remember the first time you were alone or away from your parents? I’m not talking about the first of many times your parent let you at home to deliver some mail or the first night you went to spend the night at a friend’s house. I mean complete isolation. I remember the first time I was both. That’s how I felt when I decided I wanted to travel to Costa Rica. From the seconds after the wheels of the 737 leaving the tarmac, I had the sinking realization that I was not only the state of Colorado but the United States entirely. The people with whom I had relied upon at least on a weekly basis once I turned of age were going to be thousands of miles away. If I were to need help from my parents, they weren’t there. In a plane filled to capacity with Americans, Canadians, Swedes, Ticos/as (Costa Rica nationalists), and other nationalities, I felt total isolation.
My parents were my bedrock; they were the foundation from which I had built myself. I had decided well before my parents decided that it was time for me to leave the nest. I had saved every dime, begged for every penny and placed it safe for seemed to be an impossible budget to afford such a trip. I managed but it took time. It was a discovery trip, this much we agreed upon. It was the only reason why they would agree to buy my plane tickets. My dad, ever the kidder, informed me that he intended to buy a one-way ticket and ‘fucked up’ at the checkout by buying a round-trip ticket instead. I wore on him, he said. I finally ground him down to a dull point after so many years. Sweet victory.
But when the wheels had touched down on the tarmac at San Jose International Airport in San Jose, Costa Rica, I was in full panic mode. I had uncontrollable heart palpitations despite the Xanax the lovely fifty-something year old woman gave me an hour before. Fly the friendly skies, they said. It’s funny how they never mentioned turbulence and painfully annoying children. I’m not talking about the poor babies that have their ears pop and they wail and cry until they’re blue in the face. I feel for them. I would wail and cry were it socially acceptable but alas, this is a different generation we live in. My head swimming in Xanax-lined clouds, I wanted to deplane as quickly and cautiously as possible.
Everyone around me seemed to be speaking a foreign language. I could recognize the Spanish and the English well enough but even then I had a difficult time understanding what exactly they meant by “secure my tray table” and “turn off my electronics”. Secure my what? Why would I turn off my electronics? That’s where my entertainment comes from. The lovely fifty something helped me out, knowing that the Xanax had now taken the controls of my bodily movements. Sloppy as I was, she was patient with me.
Elaine. She had a house in Limón, a city on the Gulf of Mexico and came down whenever her ex-husband and his new fiancé weren’t there. Apparently she liked the cut of my jib and invited me sailing but first, she invited me for drinks and dinner. I politely declined but not because she was hideous. Cougar stalking her prey and I didn’t have time for that. High or not, I was on a mission. A mission from God. Just kidding. I was on a mission the discover just who I was. Little did I know just how much I would learn about myself and of Costa Rica. Upon this rock, I shall build my church and this church is me. It was time to figure out what I was made of.
I had moxie, loads of it. My grandpa always told me that “you’re (I) a stubborn son of a bitch just like your mother but you’ve got moxie and I respect that.” I never really knew what ‘moxie’ was until I deplaned onto a foreign planet. I can speak and understand Spanish just fine. But I speak in that north American pace and in that NA accent that makes me stick out like a sore thumb. With the Xanax coursing through my veins, my words were slightly slurred as I asked for directions to the main exit. Pro tip: never ask someone who’s never landed in San Jose before for directions.
The San Jose airport is smaller than Denver International. Everything is written in Spanish save for a few pronouns like McDonald’s and Taco Bell. I realized quickly that despite being able to speak and understand the language, I had no idea what anyone were saying. I was used to that North American drawl, that slow sort of Spanish speaking you get when you’re taking a language class in high school. Baby Spanish, really. I say hola and before I can ask como estas, they’re asking me about where I came from, where do I need to go, what would I like to see first, my first pet’s name, favorite color, if I though the Costa Rican National Football team was going to the World Cup and introduced himself as Alejandro.
Well Alejandro, I said. Alejandro went on to talk about how he’s lived here all his life, he had a family of three including the wife, his brother got him this job and never lets him forget at the weekly familia dinner. I would like a taxi, I finish. Alejandro was the concierge of sorts and out of the hundreds of people milling to and fro from gate to exit and vice versa, his concierge spider-sense honed in on me and figured I needed assistance. For the brief moments we exchanged pleasantries, he did more for me and my anxiety than Elaine and her damn pill. He personally escorted me past the baggage claim and to the nightmarish world outside the airport. Everyone was shouting. Why were they shouting? I have no idea. I asked Alejandro why everyone was shouting. Porque ellos son penjedos, he answered and ushered me to a taxi.
This is where Alejandro saved my life. I started walking over to a red car. To me it looked like a death trap on wheels but I figured that since I was in a second-world country, it’s the best they had to work with. Turns out, it pretty much was a death trap on wheels but not for the reason you’re thinking. Alejandro quickly scooped me away from that taxi and scolded me. In Costa Rica, it is difficult to discern what’s a taxi and what’s a fake taxi designed specifically to kidnap tourists and hold them for ransom. A real taxi has a yellow triangle either painted or stamped all over the place on their car; on every door, window and roof. Alejandro swept me into a real taxi and I clumsily gave Alejandro the hotel that which I would be staying for the first two days in San Jose before I began my backpacking trip. Alejandro shouted the address to the driver and before he could safely close the door, I gave him $20 American. I’ve never seen a man’s eyes light up like Alejandro’s before. I made me feel good. It was the least I could do.
There was a bolt of lightning that lit up the cloudy sky. Before the thunder could make contact with my ears, the heavens opened up and unleashed hell. I was well within the safety of the taxi to protect me from the deluge of rain hammering the tourists that scampered helplessly to any and all taxis available. Yes, even the kidnapper deluxe picked someone up. I never got to see the person that jumped in and I felt that I should’ve warned him or her but the car sped away before I could. I was safe from the rain in this red taxi that smelled of an odd combination of good incense and bad beef jerky.
The driver was Taiwanese and when he told me his name, I stared at him blankly. “Just call me Chico,” he said in impeccable English and slammed on the gas pedal. I was rocketed to the back of my seat without warning. Only after Chico took the first left turn and me sliding across both seats did I realize that this taxi didn’t have any seatbelts. The cracked vinyl lining of the backseat helped arrest my constant slipping and sliding; I was slippery because I wasn’t completely untouched by the hellfire unleashed upon the world. I had never seen raindrops the size of silver dollars until that late afternoon. I could barely see outside the windshield. I wondered how on earth could Chico see. There’s a saying that there are no atheists in foxholes in war. Well, this was my foxhole and you better believe I was believin’ and I never stopped. Journey would be so proud of me.
Left! Right! Stop! Reverse! Right! Left! Stop! Okay, we’re hear! This wasn’t my motel. It was a veterinarian clinic. I could tell by the dog and cat silhouette on the sign. And the fact that there were no other buildings around except for this vet’s clinic. I told him no, this isn’t my hotel. Chico apologized. Straight! Stop! Right! Stop! Okay, we’re hear! Wrong again Chico. This is a supermarket. This went on for an hour and two more wrong stops. I was beginning to suspect that Alejandro had screwed me like in the movie Taken and Chico was taking me to a warehouse where they could strip me down, break my will and sell me for a premium. Okay, my imagination ran away from me on that but seriously, it was terrifying.
I got used to his jaunting driving. The Xanax was wearing off now. Xanax man. It’s got a sharp and and the bottom just drops out from underneath you. You don’t just crash. You crash and burn into a cinder. I had to keep my wits about me because Chico was pulling up to my umpteenth stop and I was already saying my new unfortunate catchphrase when I recognized the sign. It was my hotel! Holy sweet mother of God we had finally arrived. I kissed the rain stained street and inhaled deep the throes of the jungle surrounding the city. I gave Chico a tenner simply because I was afraid to give him any less. He gave me his card and told me if I ever needed my own private driver, Chico was my man.
Yeah, I threw away his card the moment I stepped into the gorgeous well air-conditioned lobby and plopped my passport down onto the counter. A incredibly beautiful, svelte and slinky woman manned the desk and was surprised upon hearing such a forceful slap against her counter. Julianna. An American in Costa Rica for university, Julianna exchanged pleasantries with me much to my very quiet jubilation celebrated inside my mind. I was exhausted, mentally and physically drained and wanted nothing more than anything vaguely resembling a bed. A pile of hay, buckwheat pillows, anything was welcomed by me. But when Julianna remarked that it had been a while since she’s been able to practice her English with anyone, she invited me to dinner. An invitation this time I graciously accepted.
Sometimes you have to walk through a mile of shit to get clean on the other side. She was a delightful cook; her room had a kitchen as it was her apartment. The hotel belonged to her tio y tia. Julianna was their ward. As fate would have it, she was on her version of spring break. After some shy and awkward conversation and the Third Degree from J., she commented that I wouldn’t find a better guide to take me all around Costa Rica and without dying. If today was such a rollercoaster alone for me, I could only imagine having a co-pilot at my side to guide me and protect me as we ventured all throughout Costa Rica and its coasts. I was alone for a few days when I was about to be jumped by a gang in Samara. But that’s another story.