Life and Death

A couple of days ago a friend and colleague of mine lost her father suddenly. It’s hard to know what to say when something like this happens. This kind of death carries a heavy grief, filled with so many what ifs and unanswered questions.

How you get through it depends on what you believe, I guess. Believing in an afterlife helps, or in some kind of divine logic. If you don’t have anything or anyone to give your grief up to — like God, or Jesus or the universe — then you might feel kind of stuck with the sadness for a while, struggling to process it.

Another friend recently went through a scare when her niece nearly died from a sudden illness. My friend and her family sat vigil in the hospital for days and nights on end. Even though her niece came through, my friend says that she feels a new kind of pain now, a deeper pain. There’s an anger and a shock when bad things happen to good people. Because even though we all know intellectually that good people suffer all the time, many of us still never think it will happen to us. It’s a loss of innocence, when we see how unfair life can be.

I haven’t been reading fiction over the past several years. A few books here and there. I took some deep dives into Infinite Jest, but still didn’t finish it. I read George Saunders stories. I read My Struggle (just the first book) by Karl Ove Knausgaard. Then a few months ago I joined the kind of book club where you actually read books (although I like the book club where you just drink wine too). The first book we read in Actual Book Club was The Tiger’s Wife by Tea Obreht. The second meeting, it was my turn to host.

I put some choices out to the group and The God of Small Things by Arundhati Roy got the most votes. I felt a certain hostess pressure. But when I finally sat down to start the book, I struggled to get through the opening chapters. The relationships were difficult to remember. I kept confusing the main characters, boy and girl twins, because their names didn’t correspond to my gender associations. The girl twin is Rahel and the boy twin is Esta. Typically, I associate girls’ names with ending in ‘a,’ so I kept thinking Esta was the girl; and the name Rahel, ending in ‘el,’ made me think of the masculine pronoun in Spanish.

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I reread the first part like five times. And then I made myself a cheat sheet, which helped a bit.

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The story jumps between the 1960s, when the twins are children, and the ‘90s, when they are adults becoming reacquainted with each other after a long separation. I was slogging through it, not getting into it, and then there was a kind of tipping point. At book club we decided it happens when the narrative starts to catch up to itself — when you finally start to see the events that have been hinted at and foreshadowed begin to unfold. I haven’t confirmed this, but it felt to me like the language got less fussy. I didn’t have to work as hard to understand, so I just started to flow with the story.

This also is the time in the book when Roy unleashes a very Knausgaard-ian-ly realistic, Lynch-ian-ly grotesque scene of child abuse that is so disturbing that I had to put the book down for a couple of days. There are several times when the writing is so visceral, and so barbaric, that it takes fortitude to read every word. You want to close your eyes like in the movies, but there is no way through it except through it.

Despite my resistance nearly all the way, I was in body-shaking sobs by the end. I felt like a stronger person for having allowed myself to mentally experience the brutal unfairness that Roy describes so vividly. She also applies that sensual realness to love scenes, which sort of balances the scales a bit.

[Spoiler alert] This book came out in 1998, but the police brutality theme is eerily current. My famous friend DeAnna and I were the only two to finish the book (which was no small feat, let me tell you) and we were both thunderstruck by about five pages toward the end when Roy dissects the rationale of the policeman beating Velutha to death. The way she describes the coldness of it and detachment of it – like the body attacking a disease — is chilling and terrifying.

There is very little justice in the world that Roy describes in The God of Small Things, and very little comfort. It just so happens that Roy recently announced she is working on a second novel. I might have to wait about 20 years to read the next one. Maybe by then I will have recovered.

But apparently, I hadn’t had enough of India, so I picked up a book that my dad had given me to read a long time ago.

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I love how Chester snuck into this picture.

Despite his reassurances that it would fly by, and despite other friends telling me how much they enjoyed it, I just hadn’t been able to get into Shantaram. But with India on the brain and emboldened by the slog through the first part of Small Things, I decided to try again. I gave myself a deadline. I would try to finish it in time to return it to my dad the next time I saw him, which gave me about 10 days to read 930 pages.

Shantaram is quasi-autobiographical (you don’t exactly know what’s real and what’s embellished, but you get the feeling that Gregory David Roberts knows a fair amount of what he speaks. And what is up with having three first names? It almost always sounds pretentious, right? Unless the person has three diminutive names, like Billy Joe Bob).

The narrator is an Australian fugitive who goes by the name Lindsay (later mostly called Lin or Linbaba). The story opens in the 1980s as Lin enters Bombay on fake papers. All we know is that Lin has recently escaped from an Australian prison where he was serving 20 years for armed robberies that he committed to feed his heroin habit.

Lin joins the local expat community, and falls in love with a woman named Karla, who, like all the non-Indian characters in the book, made her home in Bombay out of a desire to disappear. The expats Lin interacts with operate at varying levels of petty crime; and the Indians Lin interacts with range from slumdwellers to Mafia kingpins.

Like The God of Small Things, Shantaram depicts brutal suffering. Children sold as slaves, slumdwellers dying of cholera, paper-thin homes ripped through by fire and drowning in shit, starvation, rats the size of cats, malicious packs of street dogs, violence, soul-less sex, drugs, corruption and gruesome torture that seems to have no bottom, no end. It is all so unfair. The most unsettling part is that you can tell that the bad parts are real, because no one could make up the kind of cruelty that The Greg Pirate Roberts writes about.

Yet, intertwined with all the suffering, Lin experiences a different and cathartic kind of love. In particular, Lin’s guide, Prabakar “Prabu” Kharre, embodies the moral, noble heart of India. With his radiant, honest smile and his relentless optimism, Prabu insists on seeing the bright side. When tragedy strikes, Prabu says, you are very lucky, it wasn’t your house that burned down. You are blessed; it wasn’t you who died of Cholera. At first, Prabu’s approach might seem callous or selfish, but as Shantaram unfolds, we learn along with Lin, what Prabu has learned from a lifetime of inconceivable unfairness and unmerciful fate — the only way to survive is to purposely and intentionally insist upon seeing the light.

Faced with the weight of your grief, you can howl and scream, pound your fists, stomp your feet, curse the world, denounce God, give up hope, lash out, cut ties, gouge out your own heart, blame everyone you know, deny the truth, stuff down the parts you don’t want to remember, block out and numb out the things you don’t want to see or hear. You can rage, rage, rage, but none of it will change a damn thing.

On the surface, you could read Prabu’s character as a simplified stereotype, a goofy Uncle Tom type, smiling comically and getting cheap laughs from his broken English, as in the scene when he first approaches Lin:

“Good mornings, great sirs!” he greeted us. “Welcome in Bombay! You are wanting it cheap and excellent hotels, isn’t it?”

But throughout the book, Prabu is a constant reminder of goodness. His genuine care for Lin and others, his humor and spirit wash even the most heinous of realities with the soft light of compassion.

I don’t know why good people get sick. I don’t know why good people die. But I know that the only real weapon we have against suffering is love. Love can’t survive in a hardened heart; there’s no room for love when you are pumping venom or churning bitterness, blaming everyone else, carrying a big old chip on your shoulder. Love can’t survive in suffering. But also suffering can’t survive in love. And the thing about suffering is that it has an end — human bodies are built with an auto-shut-off safety function. When we reach a certain level of pain, we go numb. We can’t feel it anymore. But love is limitless. There is no end to how deep it can go. There is no ceiling. It just keeps getting more and more creative in how it grows. The more you feed it, the more surprising it is. And just as you can’t close your eyes and continue to read the book, the only way through is through. And until you actually get there, you have no idea the gifts waiting for you on the other side.

So, if you have a copy of Shantaram holding down a bunch of papers or propping open a very heavy door, all I can say is: It will fly by, I promise. I really enjoyed it.

Happy Birthday to Me

So it’s my birthday. Again.

As my friend DeAnna said somewhat accusingly in my birthday message, “I feel like your birthday has come very fast; I don’t know why — other people have also had birthdays — but I feel like the time between this birthday and your last birthday seems like less than a year.”

I hear you, DeAnna, how do we slow down this crazy train?

DeAnna is constantly surprising me with her perspective. She’s one of the few people I know who brazenly and totally bravely thinks for herself. She questions things I would never think to question (like has it been less than a year since my last birthday?). Everyone needs a friend like DeAnna.

You know, I thought 40 was the big birthday, but I think it’s 41. I mean, my birthday is a pretty big deal, as evidenced by this post on my Facebook wall from my friend Jenn:

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Jenn is going to remember my damn birthday. I tell you what.

When I turned 40 last year, I just wanted to be alone. I took a solo trip to Connecticut. I slept in a greenhouse. They called this “glamping,” that’s “glamorous camping” to you and me. On my actual birthday I kayaked. I am not comfortable with any kind of deep water, so even on a dead calm river, I found it challenging. The whole concept of steering with the oar seemed counterintuitive.

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I did make it upstream to a spot where you had to duck to get under this bridge and then on the other side you were in like a mossy green fairyland. On the return trip, floating through the narrow opening, I thought of it as a rebirth. Onward to the next phase of my life.

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This year, Lani and Chris came to visit from San Francisco. It had been a long time since they had been in Colorado together.  We decided to take an overnight trip to an AirBnB in Salida with amazing views and a hot tub.

The whole time leading up to it, I was all about the hot tub. I could not wait to sit under the stars in the damn hot tub. But when we got there I had a respiratory infection and it was frigid cold outside – in the 20s and 30s. Definitely not get-wet-and-be-outside weather. I was grumpy and disappointed, and not that fun to be around. I pouted and went to bed, which apparently I still do, even at 41 years old.

From our deck, you could see a string of 14ers, which the owner, Drew, rattled off the names of when we arrived. Drew built the house himself using strawbale construction. He has chickens and turkeys, and a huge sow named Tammy. Drew gets the vegetable scraps from some of the downtown restaurants, and the waste barley from the brewery to feed her. (Tammy wouldn’t pose for a picture, but just imagine the biggest pig you have ever seen.)

We shopped at a great thrift store in Salida the next day called Ruby Blues. This actually was the impetus for the whole trip; when Mom and I were in Salida over Christmas, I just knew that Lani and Chris would love this store. The owners are a husband-and-wife team. Their selection is authentic vintage and very reasonably priced — like varsity letter jackets, and jean jumpsuits, riding pants and 70s sweaters. A lot of amazing pieces. I’m going to go down there just to go record shopping. I want every record in the store.

Chris found a 1940s reversible military jacket with fur trim that basically had never been worn before. One side is green and the other side is white. When wearing the white side, he looks like he is in Siberia in a James Bond movie.

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He also got these 1970s sparkly motorcycle helmets.

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I got a pair of clogs. For some reason, they have a robust selection of Dansko clogs at this place.

We had lunch at the Mexican restaurant in town, then stopped at a roadside Gem and Rock Store outside Buena Vista. Lani has a thing for rocks.

Lani was a pretty miserable baby. She had constant earaches. She only wanted to be held by Mom. She cried like crazy.

When Lani was about one-and-a-half my mom was pouring boiling water into a pitcher when it burst in her hands. Lani had been on the floor, possibly even clutching my mom’s leg. She was burned all over her little body.

My earliest memory from my childhood is walking down the hospital hallway and the nurse saying, “Now remember, you can’t touch your sister, or she’ll bleed.”

I must have been about three. It was dark in the hospital room, with only a few dim lights on. When they opened the door, Lani was standing up in the crib holding the bars. She had gauze around her head and this huge smile on her face. She was happier than she’d ever been.

We were pretty shy and quiet kids. Our parents were introverts. So imagine our surprise when Lani was about five and she picked up her stuffed bear and began to speak for him in a deep, growling voice. None of us would have believed such a big voice could come out of such a little kid.

Dad asked the bear what his name was.

The bear replied, “G.B.”

Dad: What does G.B. stand for?

G.B.: Gray Black. (G.B. was a gray bear, with black eyes.)

G.B. started watching the Broncos games with us, yelling at the TV screen, high-fiving Dad. Occasionally, Dad would pick G.B. up and throw him in the air, prompting G.B. to growl, “Stop it, Gery!”

One day Dad asked G.B. who his hero was.

G.B.: [thinks for a minute] Kirk Blueberry.

Dad: Oh, yeah, what is Kirk Blueberry famous for?

G.B.: He found 10,000 rocks.

Lani loved nature from the beginning. To me, a rock is a rock. But when we were in that rock store on the side of the road outside Buena Vista last weekend, it was clear that Lani has a very special talent for seeing beauty in normal, regular things. She chatted up the geologist proprietor, asking meaningful questions, picking the best things out of the case. Lani didn’t go to school for this, but she just enjoys it; she likes what she likes, not what anyone else likes, not what she is told to like. She and Chris have this sixth sense for cool stuff. I just see a rock.

Everything shifted for me when we got to the hot springs. It was a cloudless day, gorgeous fall colors, just a bit of chill in the air. After being sick and crabby, floating in the hot springs with the sun on my face was rejuvenating. We finished out the weekend with a nice gathering at Dad’s house where we ate cake and ice cream, and did a mini birthday celebration surrounded by extended family.

On my actual birthday Mom brought me the most beautiful lunch. Salmon with garlic and dill; quinoa; an amazing salad with romaine from her garden, feta cheese, strawberries, blackberries and pecans in a blush wine vinaigrette. She even made me a cheesecake. She went off-recipe and replaced the heavy cream and whipping cream with yogurt and cream cheese. Like she does.

She helped me repot my herbs and bring them inside for the winter. And she made me the most hilarious and awesome present. Over the weekend, I had been admiring the drawings in this old cookbook she had. We especially liked this one of the cowgirl and the vegetables.

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So my mom copied the drawing and made these kitchen magnets. She really is the best mom.

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All in all, I’m optimistic about 41. I received many sweet, genuinely thoughtful and heartfelt birthday wishes. I have many people to love, so many people who love me. It’s a ridiculous abundance of friendship. I am grateful to have known and shared my heart with so many. It really is the best gift.

It’s easy to focus on what’s lacking. Like, I’m not married, and I don’t have kids, I don’t have pets, I don’t own a house, I’m out of shape, I’m exhausted and unmotivated, my ankle still hurts after breaking it three months ago. I’m sick, blah, blah, blah. It’s easy to let my mind ramble on, cataloging all my faults and failures, but there comes a point (age 41, maybe?) when all that toxic noise just gets really boring.

As I was floating in the hot springs, trying out various arrangements for the sad limp pool noodles — Under the knees? The ankles? Propped under the neck? — I overheard two ladies discussing the movie “Age of Adaline” (currently available to watch on Amazon).

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I’d seen the promo for it, but frankly, Blake Lively bugs me. She’s headed down that Gwyneth Paltrow road of self-righteous clean-living that just lacks any sort of spark of life. Where is the authentic woman behind the complexion and the ever-calm-and-collected smoky voice? Where’s the blood? Where’s the heart? Where’s the soul?

But as the ladies discussed the plot, I became intrigued. In 1930s America, Adaline (Blake Lively) is a young widow with a daughter when she accidentally slides off the road and her car ends up in a freezing lake. Adaline dies submerged in her vehicle in the icy water. But, it just so happens that within minutes of her death, the lake is struck by an electrical charge, which restarts her heart. She is alive. She climbs out of the lake, and from that day forward, her body doesn’t age another day. Adaline remains 29 years old forever. Even as her daughter grows up and becomes an old woman, Adaline still looks exactly the same. In order to avoid being kidnapped by the government or some crazy scientists, she changes her identity every 10 years. She has no life of her own. No one except her daughter knows the truth. Over the years, Adeline falls in love, at least twice.

(Spoiler alert) the movie unfolds as she meets a relentless young rich dude named Ellis (actual dialogue: “Like the island?” Ugh). Despite her reservations, Adaline, now going by the name Jenny, “falls” into bed with Ellis the way it always happens in romantic comedies: They drink a bunch and then ravage each other like horny virgins. These movies make you believe that the only way to “fall in love” with someone is to get totally hammered and have sex on the first date. Because that works out so well in real life.

Of course, Ellis is inexplicably drawn to Adaline’s aloof demeanor and distant gazes. He absolutely will not take no for an answer. Again, this only happens in movies. If a real dude were this persistent, you would be like hey stalker, no means no, brah.

Adaline agrees to go with Ellis to his parents’ 40th wedding anniversary celebration. But (plot twist!) it turns out that Ellis’s dad, played by Harrison Ford, also fell madly in love with Adeline in the 1960s, and planned to propose to her on the day that she ditched him to change her identity. One of the main reasons to watch this movie is to see the flashback scenes where the actor who plays the young Harrison Ford does like a crossover impression of Indiana Jones and Han Solo.

Eventually, Harrison Ford figures out that Jenny actually is Adaline. He begs her not to hurt his son the way she hurt him, but Adeline just can’t conceive of a life where she gets to be loved and to love another honestly.

As I watched Blake Lively’s shiny blonde hair flowing behind her as she ran through a forest, the point of the movie hit me. It’s about running away from life, making excuses, giving in to doubts, letting whatever the obstacle is – money, health, social awkwardness, fear, anger, shame, eternal youth, whatever – letting that thing stop you from even trying.

When Ellis discovers that Adaline has left, he asks his father what happened. What made her leave? Why’d she do it?

Ellis: Dad! Tell me what she said!

Harrison Ford character: She said she’s not capable…

Ellis: Of what?

Harrison Ford character: Of change.

Over the past few months, I’ve slowly opened up to the idea that my future could look different from my past. I don’t have to run. I don’t have to listen to the mindless critical chatter. I don’t have to settle. I don’t have to lock my heart away, and I don’t have to deny myself the life I deserve as penance for my perceived faults and failures.

The media and the advertisers will tell you that aging is about loss — the loss of beauty, of health, of optimism, of potential — like if you haven’t made your career and had your family by 35, if you haven’t maintained a perfect physique and resisted all addictions, if you haven’t found inner peace and eliminated negativity, if you haven’t accomplished something, become somebody, achieved your dreams, healed your family, saved the world, then you might as well just completely give up.

But it’s a lie.

The reason prior generations valued youth so much is that everyone expected to be dead by 50. Life was hard. People were dying all the damn time. You got married at like 12 and had 10 babies by 40. You probably wished you were dead. You worked on a farm or in a factory or a mine where nobody cared if you didn’t feel like going to work that day. Nobody cared if there was a blizzard or an ice storm or a dust bowl. You didn’t have choices. Youth was valued because you didn’t expect to be young for very long. You had to grow up fast, and the decisions you made as you launched into adulthood had serious, lasting repercussions. Marrying the wrong man or choosing the wrong job could put you in the hospital, or in jail, or in the grave. We have so many choices now. We have so much more to work with than any generation before us. Including time.

So, here’s to 41. Here’s to change. Here’s to choices. Here’s to anything can happen. Here’s to another year. (And I’ll try to make it a full year this time, DeAnna.)

 

On George Saunders and things that happen on my way home

It started on Sunday. I was waiting for the bus at Lawrence and 16th St. Mall after a long bus ride from Boulder, and all I wanted was to get home as soon as possible.

It had been a draining day. I had seen both of my parents—and both of them alone, which is rare. My stepmom was on a trip and my little brother, home from college for winter break, was at work. He has a job as a tour guide at the Celestial Seasonings Tea Company, where our dad has worked for the past 35 years. I was a tour guide there when I was his age too.

But on this day it was just me and Dad. We didn’t talk about much in particular. Football—since the Broncos were playing the Chargers that day—and my new job, life in general.

My mom picked me up and we got Mexican food for lunch. Afterwards, we went to her house and hung out. I must have been storing up some stress, because as soon as we were alone, I pretty much immediately broke down in tears. There’s something about being with my mom that just makes me feel like I can finally let go. So, we talked through it and my mom was very supportive, but afterward I felt emotionally spent and just ready to be alone.

I had just gotten to Market St. Station in downtown Denver and was waiting for the 38 bus, which would be about a 10-minute ride to my house, when a woman approached pushing a stroller, with two young kids trailing behind.

The woman looked tired. It was cold that day, and the kids were dressed in warm coats, but she just had on a thin jacket. I heard her ask a man standing at the stop if he knew if the 38 goes to the Samaritan House, which is the local homeless shelter.

I know about the Samaritan House because I stayed there when I was in college as part of a social justice/leadership training program that I was in called INVST. A cohort of 12 of us, plus two facilitators, volunteered there for a week, interacting with the “guests” and eating what they ate, seeing what they saw. The only thing we didn’t do was sleep in the dorms with them. Our group slept in the kids’ playroom, on the floor, in sleeping bags.

During the days, we did projects with nearby charity organizations like the Denver Rescue Mission and the Colorado Coalition for the Homeless. On one day, we went out onto “the streets” without any money. Some of us tried “spanging” or “spare-changing.” But others of us didn’t feel right about it because it seemed like we were cheapening the experience of those who have no other choice but to ask for money.

As part of the program, we also read and discussed critical essays about the poverty cycle, the causes and effects of homelessness, and wealth disparity in general. The most memorable was a book called Rachel and Her Children by Jonathan Kozol. It’s Kozol’s true account of the months that he spent in The Martinique Hotel in New York City in the 1980s—It was a “homeless hotel,” basically a condemned, rat-infested building where many of the residents were young children who barely had enough to eat.

As a college student, raised in a pretty sheltered place, I can’t say that I fully got it at that point. I understood that a lot of folks had been dealt a raw deal in life.

I got the injustice of the fact that a handful of privileged people, most of whom got to where they are through no real effort of their own, make the rules that govern the lives of everyone else, and that they basically perpetuate the continuous cycle of the rich getting more and the poor getting less.

I was sympathetic, but I can’t say that I felt comfortable around homeless people. I was scared of them. They were dirty. They were rough. They had a rawness about them.

Over the years since then I have come to understand the significance of that experience at the Samaritan House. Although I didn’t get it at the time, it definitely made me see homelessness in a different way—like, these people aren’t that different from me or my family. It doesn’t take long to internalize feelings of hopelessness, and to continue to spiral downward. Especially if you have no one to help you out and no resources or education to fall back on.

So on Sunday, when I heard the woman ask about the Samaritan House, I felt compelled to help. I asked her if she knew the address and she said yes, 2301 Lawrence. I looked it up on my phone and figured out that they would need to get off at Park West.

Her two older kids, a girl and a boy, were hopping around the bus bench, laughing and curiously listening. I told the boy that I liked his glasses, which seemed to make him bashful. I told the mom where they would need to go and then I remembered that I had a booklet of bus tickets, which are basically the same as cash for the bus fare.

I asked if they ride the bus often, and the little boy called out, “Yeah, we do!” So I gave the mom the bus tickets. She thanked me, but seemed a little shy about it.

When the bus pulled up, the little girl looked at me and asked, “Is this your bus too?” I said yes. I watched them until they got off at Park. In my head, I said a little prayer for them. I wanted to tell the mom that, despite what are obviously difficult circumstances, she must be doing a good job. Her kids seemed so happy and inquisitive, curious and kind. I tried to imagine a hopeful future for them, that their bright spirits won’t be squashed by the fear and the bitterness that must come with that life.

I made it home and I didn’t think much more of it.

The next night, I had my first voice lesson. I am starting to take singing classes from this real cool chick named Kristine who has a studio in a church on Capitol Hill. I had ridden my bike, but I didn’t want to ride all the way home in the dark, so I caught the 15 bus to downtown, where I would then have to connect to one other bus.

First of all, the 15 took for-freaking-ever. I was waiting with two stylish high school boys, two drunk old men, and a guy on a bike who I think might have had a slight mental disability—which I guessed might have something to do with PTSD, because the dude gave me a very military vibe. Not in a bad way, but he just seemed very efficient and concerned about things. He was socially awkward in a way that indicated that he might have been medicated—not the sloppy disorderliness of a drunk or a junkie, but the hyperclarity of someone on anti-psychotics. I had already been waiting for 10 minutes or so when he rode up and asked if I thought we could get both of our bikes on the bus.

“I guess we’ll just have to wait and see,” I replied.

And then he very sweetly added, “Well, you get the first shot at it, cuz you were here first.”

I told him I appreciated that.

But eventually the bus took so long that he rode off, bidding us to have a good night. The bus finally came, and I got my bike in the rack, no problem. It was pretty full, so I sat down next to an older man. He asked me if I knew where the 15 turned when it got off Colfax. I blabbed out some unhelpful answer where I tried to pretend like I knew, even though I didn’t really know. I asked him where he was going, and he said, “23rd and Broadway.”

From the night before, I remembered that the Samaritan House is on 23rd and Lawrence, but I didn’t want to assume that was where he was going. I asked him if he really meant 23rd and Broadway, and he said yes. So I looked it up on my phone, and got the directions for him, but they weren’t easy to convey—he would have to get off the 15, then walk a block to another bus stop, where he would catch the 48.

I tried to help him, but the directions were so long and convoluted that I feared I had confused him more. He was anxiously sitting on the edge of his seat, looking at every stop, trying to figure out where to get off, but I could tell that he was too embarrassed to ask me again.

I decided that I would get off at the stop with him, and try to make it look like it was coincidental, and then I would offer to walk him to the next stop. But he pulled the buzzer and got off a stop too early. I didn’t tell him because I sensed that his pride was more important right then. I didn’t want to condescend to him or embarrass him more.

I felt terrible that I hadn’t helped him, but what could I do? I got off that bus and rode a block or two to my transfer. I saw that my bus was just about to round the corner. All I had to do was to sprint a block or so to get ahead of it. I was so in the zone, apparently, that when I got to the stop, feeling very lucky that my timing had worked out so well, I rushed to put my bike in the rack and get on. I sat down, very relieved, until the bus turned on 17th. At first I thought maybe there was a detour. But we kept going straight, so I asked the driver, “Is this a 38?” and he said, “No, this is a 15.”

Um, WHAT?? I had just boarded a bus going back to Capitol Hill, where I had just come from. Somehow without my noticing, a no. 15 bus had passed the no. 38 bus and arrived at the bus stop first. In my rush of relief, I had gotten on the wrong bus.

Crap.

So I had to get off and ride my bike back to the bus stop, where I would now have to wait at least 30 minutes for the next one.

I was not pleased. I was cold. I was pissed. I just wanted to get home.

A few minutes later, two young girls walked up. They looked about 15 or 16. Neither one of them had coats, just thin hoodies. They asked me if the no. 12 bus stopped there. I said no, and I asked where they were going.

“Westminster,” they replied.

I don’t know every bus route in Denver, but I was fairly certain that they would need to take the regional bus to Boulder, which costs $5. I told them this, but they said, no way, they didn’t have that kind of money.

They weren’t from here—one of them was from Vermont. The other from the Midwest. They had met in a group home for adolescent girls—the kind of place where you end up when you’ve gotten in trouble for fighting, or drugs, or when you’ve been so discarded that the system simply doesn’t know what else to do with you.

I could tell they were a couple, but I didn’t say so outright. One of the girls seemed to identify as more male. Her girlfriend still had a full set of braces—a sign that someone, somewhere, had at least invested in her wellbeing that much.

Once again, I took out my phone and looked up the bus routes. As I suspected, the directions suggested they take the Boulder bus. But it also suggested an alternate route, that would take a lot longer, but wouldn’t involve an increased fare. They would ride my bus, the 38, all the way to Wadsworth, then transfer to the 76 the rest of the way to the Westminster Park ‘n’ Ride.

They thanked me and we started chatting. The girl without the braces told me that she used to come to 16th St. Mall “all the time” with her dad. And that they would ride their longboards, and get drinks at Starbucks. The way she said that they did this “all the time” made me think that they had done this once, and that it was a special memory for her. She kept saying that she knows these streets “like the back of [her] head.” I didn’t have the heart to correct her.

They had been out on the streets for two nights, trying to get back to Westminster. They said that no one would help them. So they had just gotten on bus after bus, getting more and more lost. I didn’t ask them where they slept, or what they had encountered in those two freezing nights.

The girl with the braces pointed to the steam rising up from the sewers. She asked if there was something wrong. I told her no. It’s always doing that.

As we boarded the bus, I confirmed the girls’ route with the driver and he said that it was correct.

I sat across from them in the front seats. I gathered up all the cash I had—a dollar bill and a handful of coins—and I handed it over to them.

They were very grateful, thanking me, saying that they really appreciated my help.

“So many people wouldn’t help us,” they said. “They just walked on past us.”

I told them that it’s just because people aren’t used to talking to each other out on the street. That we’re all sort of in our own worlds.

“Or they’re creeps,” the one girl said.

Yes, I concurred. There are a lot of creeps.

I leaned in and looked them both in the eye, “But you have each other,” I said, “and that’s not nothing.”

The girl without the braces seemed to light up. She cuddled under her girlfriend’s arm. “She’s protected me from a lot,” she said. I could see the tears welling up in her eyes.

Ironically, when we got to the stop for the Samaritan House, the man who I had tried to help earlier passed me on his way off the bus. So, despite my poor directions, he did make it there, which eased my mind.

We reached my stop and, as I was exiting the bus, I repeated the directions to the girls. “Get off at Wadsworth and catch the 76,” I said. I looked at each of them as I said it, trying to ingrain it in their brains.

They thanked me again.

The girl with the braces said, “It was really nice to meet you.”

“You too,” I told them. But I never got their names.

I said a little prayer that they would get to their destination and be able to sleep and get warm that night.

Which all leads up to yesterday.

My coworker came into my office mid-morning and informed me that the short stories writer George Saunders would be signing his book at the Tattered Cover that night. I was turned onto him by my friend Dimitri who leant me his copy of CivilWarLand In Bad Decline, Saunders first short story collection which made him an immediate literary sensation due to his darkly comedic yet tender storytelling style.

Saunders is thought by many to be the writer of his generation. He has been praised by everyone from Thomas Pynchon and Tobias Wolff (his former writing professor at Syracuse) to Zadie Smith, Dave Eggers, and David Foster Wallace who said of CivilWarLand that it was “well worth a good deal of attention.”

On my lunchhour, I went to the Tattered Cover to get a ticket for the reading—tickets are free, but you have to get one to guarantee a seat. I bought a copy of his newest book Tenth of December, even though I was worried about spending the money. I’m trying to stick to a budget, and I can’t be randomly blowing all my cash on books.

So I was already a little stressed about money when I left the bookstore, and just a few feet from the door, I passed a young man who was standing stone-still on the sidewalk, watching me go by. He had a sleeping bag and a backpack, and he looked a little rough around the edges, so I assumed he was homeless. He seemed to want to get my attention, but he was speaking so softly that I couldn’t make out what he was saying. I asked him to repeat himself, even though I knew I had no cash on me, and that he would likely ask me for some.

He seemed surprised that I was speaking directly to him. I stood in front of him and looked him in the eye. He looked to be in his early to mid-20s, very soft spoken and humble in his demeanor. He said his name was Kevin.

He spoke louder—he told me that he had come out here from another state (I can’t remember which) with a woman who had told him that he could rent a room in her house for $400 a month. They had driven together, with all his stuff, but when they arrived it turned out that she didn’t have a house or a room at all. She took all his stuff and his money, and left him with nowhere to go. He had been on the streets for two weeks—homeless for the first time in his life.

For most of that time, he had been able to get a bed at the Denver Rescue Mission, until the previous night, when they had already filled up when he got there. He tried to get into the overflow beds at the Samaritan House, but they wouldn’t take him until he got a $25 tuberculosis test to show he didn’t have TB. He said he had already met with a caseworker there though, and that they may be able to help him, if he could just find somewhere to stay.

He said he needed $30 for the hostel, but that he’d been asking passersby for spare change for over two hours, and had made less than $3.

The night before, he had slept outside—he had found a steam grate which was keeping him somewhat warm, until about 2:30 am, when a cop came by and told him to move along.

Kevin said he begged with the cop, “I’m not intoxicated,” he said, “the shelter is full—I’m human. I can’t walk around all night. I have to sleep.”

“That’s not my problem,” was the cop’s reply. He said it’s illegal to sleep outside in public due to Denver’s Urban Camping Ban.

I just felt like I had to help Kevin. We walked over to the ATM and I withdrew $20. I told him to consider that, even if he could raise the rest of the money for the hostel, that would only get him one night and then he would be right back in the same predicament the next day.

I suggested that he would be better off spending that money on the TB test. At least then he would have the option of getting into an overflow bed at Samaritan House. I shook his hand and wished him luck.

I stopped into Illegal Pete’s for lunch, feeling sad for Kevin, and also frustrated at myself for withdrawing another $20. I had already been feeling guilty about spending money. I had already splurged on a book. What was I going to do, give 20 bucks to every homeless person on the 16th St. Mall?

I reached into my wallet to pay for my burrito, and noticed the corner of a check folded up in the billfold part. That’s when I remembered that I had meant to deposit that check earlier in the week. It was a refund from when I cancelled my Internet.

The amount of the check was $20.90.

So, basically, the money that I had been so worried about withdrawing and giving to Kevin, was sitting right there in my wallet, ready to be deposited back in the bank.

What struck me about all of these experiences was how different all of these people were on the surface—the mother and her kids were African American; of the two teenage girls, the one without braces was white and the girl with the braces was Asian; the vet on the bike was white, as was the old man on the bus; and Kevin looked to be Hispanic or possibly part Native American.

What made them all similar was that they were all kind and vulnerable. And none of them seemed to deserve to be homeless. Yet there was something still hopeful about them too.

That night at the reading, George Saunders said that he really only found his writing voice when he stopped trying to “climb the mountain of Hemingway”—stopped trying to live up to some impossible standard—and planted his flag in the “dung hill of George Saunders.”

During the Q&A, someone commented that they were surprised, considering the dark content of his writing, to find Saunders himself to be so upbeat.

Saunders has heard this before—he said that one time someone actually referred to him as “perky.”

“How can that be?” people always want to know.

They ask him: Which is it?

Is life terrible? Or is life wonderful?

Yes. Saunders replies. It is.

A Vacation of Fitness and Terror, Vol. 5: The True Meaning of Fear

COSTA RICA 378

Another of Jenn’s cool pictures. This was taken on the beach in Santa Teresa.

None of us knew what to expect as we left Casa Morfo for our last full day of vacation. Our plan was to hike to the Montezuma waterfalls in the morning and then drive to the nearby town of Santa Teresa for lunch.

There were two options for getting to the waterfall—Joy and Chris were going to walk down the river—not on a trail next to the river, but actually in the river itself, hopping from slippery stone to slippery stone. (This reminds me of a time when we were hiking in Cabo Blanco, I pointed out a slick spot to Joy and said, “That’s an ankle breaker.” She replied, “Yeah, that’s a real teeth-knocker-outer.”)

Brian and Jenn would drive the car to the trailhead a little later, then hike up from the parking lot to the big waterfall. I could choose which way to go—down the river with Joy and Chris, or in the car.

My first thought was—um, hell-to-the-no. There was no way that I would step foot in that river ever again. I would take the nice, leisurely ride in the RAV-4 and the well-traversed trail from the parking lot, thank you very much.

But I guess I caught a case of the fuck-its that morning, because I was like, what the hell am I so afraid of? What’s the worst that could happen? Fuck it.

I had done a pretty good job of psyching myself up when Joy, Chris, and I set off for the river trail. Then we stopped to chat with Alex for some last minute tips.

He said that it takes most people about 20 minutes. As a local, he could make it in about 10 because he knows all the best places to get his footing. When we asked him about the waterfalls themselves, I really thought that he would laugh it off and tell us that they were no big deal. (I thought he would be like, “Ha, ha! There is nothing to fear, silly gringos!”)

Instead, he looked at us with some trepidation. He said the first waterfall isn’t very high. You don’t have to jump, however it is actually easier than trying to shimmy down the rockface.

The second waterfall would be much higher. You can still jump off of it, but it is safer to climb down to about the halfway point and jump from there. If we chose not to jump off the second waterfall, we could climb around the rocks to the left where we would have to “be like Spiderman” (Alex made a little Spiderman move) and cling to the mountainside with only a very narrow ledge. He mimed as if he were scooting along a thin trail, trying not to look down.

He got very serious. No one jumps off the big waterfall, he said. People have tried it and they have died. When you are standing at the top, it looks like sheer water, but there are actually rocks jutting out underneath. Alex made a motion with his hand to illustrate a body hitting one of those sharp rocks.

We thanked him and started on our way. After hearing that we pretty much had to jump into the first pool, I started to freak out a bit. I decided to run back to Casa Morfo to leave my backpack and towel in the car. There would be no point in carrying a bag if it was just going to get wet when I was forced to jump off a waterfall.

I’m not going to lie—I seriously considered backing out on the whole thing. I mean, the RAV-4 was right there. It had air conditioning. I would have much less chance of bodily injury. But, once again, I thought, fuck it. When is the next time I’m going to be on a Chris Parkes Fitness Vacation? So I somewhat reluctantly made my way back to the trail.

As we descended the long, steep mud stairs, I determined that the only way I was going to make it through this ordeal was to attack my anxiety head on.

I thought about what went wrong the last time, and I realized that it was all about that first leap—right as we entered the water. Last time, when faced with that first leap, I let my fear take over. I allowed my thoughts to spin with negative scenarios and all the things that might possibly go wrong. (It reminds me of something my dad said recently about learning to meditate. He said in a sort of mock guru voice: “Too much mind.”)

When we got to that first leap this time, I did not hesitate. I did not hem and haw or try to find a way around it. I just jumped. And as we made our way down the river, I continued to let my instincts guide me. I looked around at the possible places to jump to next. I assessed my options, and I took the best one.

Chris makes his way down el rio.

Chris makes his way down el rio.

Sometimes I wobbled or slipped, but my attitude was completely transformed. Last time, whenever my foot slid an inch out of my control, my mind used it as evidence to convince me that I was doomed for failure. Every rock looked scarier and more slippery than the last. The feeling of danger was compounded by the knowledge that whatever I slipped down would have to be climbed back up on the return trip.

But this time, there would be no return trip, so I didn’t have to worry about that. And rather than seeing every stumble as a harbinger of further difficulty, I just decided to trust. To have faith. I didn’t overthink it. I just jumped. Fuck it.

And that worked beautifully. Until we got to the first waterfall.

Alex was right; it wasn’t too high. But it would still require getting some distance out from the rocks to clear it. And the pool drained directly into the second, much larger waterfall, which I had no desire to get sucked into.

If you didn’t want to jump, the only other way was to repel yourself down to the pool by taking hold of some black rubber water pipes that were strongly anchored (one hoped) to the hillside. Chris took this option in order to keep our supplies dry. Once he made it down to the pool area, he did a little re-con and found the trail.

Having watched the effort it took Chris to get down to the pool by clutching those weird pipes, I have to admit that jumping seemed the better option. So Joy and I stripped down to our suits and tossed our other clothes to Chris.

It was a beautiful, serene pool, especially given the raging waterfall just on the other side. Right as we were about to jump, a man and a woman approached from the trail. They were the first other tourists we’d seen on the river that day. They looked vaguely European—maybe French or Spanish. They perched themselves on the rocks facing us and unwrapped their sandwiches. They looked at us like we were daring for jumping off the waterfall. It gave me a moment of pride.

I threw my hat in the water and jumped. As I climbed out of the pool wearing just my tennis shoes, my bathing suit, and my soggy hat, I felt like a real adventurer. I was like frickin’ Joan Wilder.

We scooted on our butts down a fairly steep rocky hillside to get to the second waterfall pool. I could not imagine anyone jumping from the top of it. It is as big as a proper waterfall should be. About 50 feet. None of us jumped from this one; we just swam in the pool. It was a little more unsettling too because it had a much stronger current and it flowed right into the big mama waterfall, which you apparently don’t want to go off of because YOU WILL DIE.

Overall, at that point, as we swam around the second waterfall pool, I was feeling pretty badass. I felt like I had faced something really big.

As we were leaving, a bunch of tourists started to arrive. Everyone was kind of milling around, trying to figure out where to go. Then a very athletic, tanned and toned blonde chick with a belly button piercing approached. She didn’t hesitate at all—she just climbed to the rock ledge about 20 feet up the second waterfall and dove right in.

That took some of the wind out of my sails. How could something that was terrifying to me be so easy for her?

Looking back, I realize that, rather than feeling bad because I had been scared where she was not, I want to celebrate her. She was demonstrating the very thing that I want to learn—Too much mind. Don’t think. Just jump.

And, as we found out, sometimes the jumping is the easy part. It’s the climbing out that is the challenge.

Probably the scariest part of the experience thus far was scrambling back up the rocks from the second waterfall pool to get to the trail. I mean, it was steep. And you didn’t always have great places to get a grip.

The “trail” began with a series of roots and pipes that were used to pull yourself up the side of the hill using your upper body strength. It was pretty high, and believe me, you did not want to look down at any point in this process.

We finally made it on to a somewhat normal trail—like room for both your feet and not a sheer dropoff on either side—and I honestly thought that the hardest parts must be behind us. But then, just as we were descending on the big waterfall pool, we reached a point where the trail just dropped off into a muddy hillside, which we had to repel down using ropes with big knots tied into them.

Honestly, if I had really understood what this hike entailed before attempting it, I would have been too scared. But when it was all over and we were lounging in the big waterfall pool, I felt like a different person. For maybe the first time in my life, I fully understood the payoff of pushing myself beyond my perceived limits.

Jenn and Brian met us at the big waterfall pool and we made our way back to the car. Contrary to my assumptions, the trail to the parking lot was a little rough as well. We somehow ended up off the beaten path and suspended from another hillside, dangling into the river from some more of those weird black water pipes. Thankfully, that part only lasted for a few minutes. But, needless to say, we all felt that we had earned our leisurely lunch in Santa Teresa as a reward for our efforts that morning.

As we walked up the road into town, I noticed a change in my general attitude.

Even though I have traveled in some fairly sketchy places, for some reason, this trip had me feeling especially vulnerable. Normally, I am not easily sketched out, but something about the characters milling about downtown Montezuma put me on edge. Not to mention the steep, windy, narrow roads and the lack of any discernible traffic laws.

But as we walked up the road from the waterfall, with shirtless dudes on motorcycles whizzing past—not wearing helmets, of course, and often with a small child sitting up near the handlebars—I found that I wasn’t freaked out by it anymore. I was feeling very zen.

And that lasted for about ten minutes.

We had seen the road to Santa Teresa on an earlier daytrip, so we felt pretty confident that  we knew where we were going. We might have been a little alarmed when, less than a kilometer into the drive, we found ourselves on an extremely narrow passage, with no places to turn around, and with a river about a foot or two deep rushing in front of the RAV-4.

Our options were to: 1) Keep going; or 2) Attempt to drive in reverse far enough that we found some kind of safe place to execute an extremely tight turn:

We opted to push forward.

The road was less than 10 km, but it felt like we were on it forever. We crossed more rushing rivers. We balanced our wheels around gaping holes in the dirt. We gunned it up steep inclines and prayed that the next dip, around the next curve, through the next bumpy narrow passageway, would be traversable, because there was no way any of us wanted to have to turn around and go back through what we had just passed.

It felt like we were filming a Toyota truck commercial. Only a lot, lot less fun. At one point, the trees thinned out and we found that the road was on a ledge, which dropped off into a jungle valley to our right. There would absolutely be no place to turn around here. And of course our phones didn’t really work. We didn’t have any food or water. All we needed now was for the car to get stuck, then for someone to fall and get some kind of compound fracture, and, boom. I Shouldn’t Be Alive, here we come.

But, thanks to some expert driving by Chris, some solid wing-man support from Brian, and the women keeping our cries of terror to ourselves (for the most part), we made it on to a real road again. Later, the guys told Alex which route we’d taken, and he was absolutely flabbergasted. We had essentially driven through the Cabo Blanco Nature Preserve jungle, on a road that was meant for dirt bikes and 4-wheelers.

Our first impression upon entering Santa Teresa was that we would have needed to be a lot richer and better looking to have vacationed there. Brian summed it up pretty well when he said that it was like a collection of “all the coolest people from the places that they’re from.” Everyone was perfectly tan and skinny. It was horrible.

Alex had suggested we have lunch at Pranamar “Buddha Eyes” Restaurant, where they serve a lot of fresh juices, salads, and healthy dishes, as well as some good old boat drinks like pina coladas and Mai Tais. All in all, it was pretty darn swanky.

pranamar

They have a sign in the bathroom telling you that the resort has its very own sewage treatment plant. We couldn’t figure out why this was a selling point. But we did think of a good tagline: “Pranamar Yoga Retreat and Villas—Where your shit is treated as well as you are.”)

On the right, you will see the statue that I almost bought. The place was pretty much empty as we were leaving, except for a group of very fit exotic surfer dudes. Naturally, I wanted to make a good impression. We had been told to remove our shoes upon entering, and as I paused ever-so-gracefully to put them back on, I inadvertently put my fat palm right on the statue's face and sent it flying sideways, into the dining room and directly in front of the surfer dudes, where it landed with an extremely loud and echoing "THUMP." Brian yelled out to the waitstaff, "Well, at least you have her credit card number!" Thankfully, the statue survived and they did not have to use it.

On the right, you will see the statue that I almost bought. The place was pretty much empty as we were leaving, except for a group of very fit exotic surfer dudes. Naturally, I wanted to make a good impression. We had been told to remove our shoes upon entering, and as I paused ever-so-gracefully to put them back on, I inadvertently put my fat palm right on the statue’s face and sent it flying sideways, into the dining room and directly in front of the surfer dudes, where it landed with an extremely loud and echoing “THUMP.” Brian yelled out to the waitstaff, “Well, at least you have her credit card number!” Thankfully, the statue survived and they did not have to use it.

After lunch, we made our way to the beach, which was quite beautiful. The waves were fairly gentle, but there were a lot of knee-scrapers and face-smashers among the rocks just below the water’s surface, so you had to be careful.

hammock

They were offering surfing lessons:

surfing lessons

And we decided that I am going to marry a rich guy who will pay for everyone to come to our destination wedding here:

wedding altar

There’s not much to report about the return trip. There were no strippers on our ferry to Puntarenas (how unfortunate!) and the drive back was not nearly as harrowing. However, we did miss our exit, forcing Chris to execute another cross-four-lanes-of-speeding-mid-90s-sedans U-turn.

We got pretty turned around and couldn’t find the road we were supposed to be on until, funnily enough, we got our bearings again when we recognized a store with 8-10 rotisserie chickens rolling past the plate glass window surrounded by a bunch of tires and appliances. The old tire chicken place had saved the day.

That night, we basically spent a couple hundred dollars on food at the Denny’s Restaurant that shared a parking lot with our Holiday Inn. The guys watched football at the casino next to the Denny’s for a while, and we ladies watched music videos in our hotel room. This was by far our favorite:

After a crack-of-dawn flight from San Jose to Panama City, and a five-ish hour flight to Houston, we found out that our final flight to Denver was delayed at least an hour and a half, which turned into four hours when all was said and done. We were pretty exhausted when we made it back to DIA. We exited the train into the terminal and stepped on to the escalator, only to discover that it wasn’t moving. As we trudged up that last flight of stairs, we were all thinking the same thing: Damn you, Chris Parkes Fitness Vacation!

**Once again, thank you to Jenn Superka for the picture of the motorcycle on the beach in Santa Teresa. We’ve been back almost a month now, and it is all beginning to feel like a distant memory, so it’s great to have the pictures. Jenn recently shared her album on Google+, and as I was scrolling through, I noticed that she had cleverly concealed herself in some of the photos…

Okay, so it was her Google avatar. It's like Where's Waldo? Where's Jenn?

Okay, so it was her Google avatar. It’s like Where’s Waldo? Where’s Jenn?

A Vacation of Fitness and Terror, Vol. 4: Curse of El Rio

montezuma pura vida bballPrior to departing on our Costa Rican adventure, we had tossed around a lot of ideas for possible activities, including horseback riding (check.), beach time (check.), swimming (check.), and hiking in the Cabo Blanco Nature Preserve (where we saw the busts of Nicolas Wessberg and Karen Mogensen).

Among the things still on our list were a snorkeling excursion to nearby Tortuga Island and a visit to Montezuma’s waterfalls. Pretty much the only thing that Brian (aka, The Pelican) wanted to do was deep sea fishing. The owners of our rental property, Alex and Khalida, set up a private fishing trip for the guys and arranged for a masseuse to come to the house to give each of us ladies a massage while the guys were away.

This was not just any masseuse. Her name is Devaya and she owns a yoga studio in Montezuma. Picture Joyce DeWitt (Janet from Three’s Company). Now shrink her down to about 65 pounds and give her the mouth of a sailor. Khalida told us that Devaya was also something of a psychic—while we were on the massage table, she might very well tell us our future, or give us a soul reading, or whatever.

We were all pretty excited to find out what she would tell us. Jenn was first. Joy and I went up to the big pool to give them some privacy.

big pool

Joy went to the massage table next, and Jenn filled me in on all the insights that Devaya had shared with her about her true purpose, her relationships, and her health. It sounded like they had talked pretty much the whole time.

When Joy emerged, I expected her to have lots of juicy stuff to share with us. But the only bit of insight Devaya had shared with Joy was that she needs more calcium in her diet.

I have to admit that when I first heard this, I thought it was just part of the infamous Joy Kosenski Customer Service Curse (for as long as I’ve known her, Joy has had a problem with customer service people. They just don’t like her). But then I got on the massage table and Devaya barely said a word to me either except that I “bruise easily” and that I should drink nettle tea. Thanks a lot, Jenn. You used up all the psychic powers. (It was a good massage though.)

Meanwhile, the guys were on a small fishing boat with a guy named Eric, another guy simply called “Pollo” and the owner of the boat, a man named Macho, who we proceeded to see just about every day after that riding his motorcycle from town to town.

fishing

Here is Chris, apparently having caught a fish. The big story of the trip was that Brian came within inches of reeling in a dorado, or mahi mahi—which would have been a major accomplishment. Chris got a great video of the moment when the fish jumps the hook and you just hear one of the boat’s crew (Macho? Pollo?) exclaiming, “PUNTO, MAN!” which we deduced is kind of like saying, “FUCK!”

Brian made some pretty good ceviche and fish tacos out of what they caught. The food throughout the trip was not too bad (although we all got pretty sick of salchiches and processed cheese). Some of it—like the sushi at Puggo’s and the casado at the Panaderia Cabuya—were downright delicious.

Casado is a simple dish of rice, beans, plantains, salad, and a protein (in this case, the most delicious chicken you've ever had). At Panaderia Cabuya.

Casado is a simple dish of rice, beans, plantains, salad, and a protein (in this case, the most delicious chicken you’ve ever had). At Panaderia Cabuya.

On Thanksgiving night, we had a fancy dinner at a Mediterranean restaurant called Playa de los Artistas. It was a swanky spot right on the beach where our server was a sunkissed blonde Frenchman, giving the whole experience a cosmopolitan feel. If Matt Damon were in Montezuma, he would be eating here for sure.

The menu was all in Spanish, so our Frenchman had to painstakingly translate every dish for us. If he hadn’t been absolutely dreamy, it might have been annoying to have your server sitting at your table reading you the menu with a thick French accent. After what felt like forever, we were on one of the last entrees and he got stuck on a pronunciation. He just kept repeating it: sweesharsweeshar… (We had absolutely no clue what he was saying)… sweesharsweeshar… sweeshar … sweeshar … (seriously, this went on for quite a while.)

Finally Jenn was like, “OH, ARE YOU TRYING TO SAY SWISS CHARD?” and we all realized we didn’t want that dish anyway. We got a bunch of other good stuff, like octopus salad, tuna steak, and lobster lasagna. After dinner, we ordered a whole bottle of pink champagne. That was our high-rollin’ Thanksgiving.

We joked that we needed to get up early the next morning to be first in line for all the Black Friday sales:

viernes negro

We spent quite a bit of time just hanging out at Casa Morfo and exploring the property. On the other side of the big house there was a steep jungle trail leading down to the river.

IMG_3828

Despite how tranquil it looks here, the river moves very fast in some places.

IMG_3827

The rocks were all furry and moss covered, so it felt like we were in a fantasy movie.

Our first time to the river, we walked upstream a bit and lounged in some deep, clear pools. We talked to Alex and he said that if we actually walked downstream, we could reach the Montezuma waterfalls in about 20 minutes.

So, on our second visit, we tried to walk downstream. I say “we tried” because from the moment I stepped onto the rocks, every part of my being wanted to turn around and go back.

There was a spot where you had to hop across the rushing water, from one rock to another. When I got to that spot, I should have just jumped. Instead, I started to analyze the situation. I played out the scenarios of what would happen if I didn’t make it. What if my foot slipped? What if I banged my knee and fell? I started to investigate other options for getting across, but no matter where I looked, the rocks were slick, the water was rushing, and my mind was spinning with anxiety.

I was slipping all over the place; I couldn’t get my footing. I fell down hard into a shallow brown puddle that looked like toilet water, bruising my ass and jarring my wrists. Every slick spot we came to, every steep rockface I had to shimmy down, every nub of a rock I was supposed to hop onto, my mind was fighting me, filling me with fear and hesitation. Fear that I would fall and twist my ankle, break my wrist, get swept away. Fear that I would experience pain, or that I would be so mentally crippled by anxiety that I wouldn’t be able to go on.

I was very thankful when we turned around and got back on the trail. And I certainly did not think that I would ever attempt that again.

The last big-ticket adventure of our trip was a boat ride to Tortuga Island. We went back to Zuma Tours and booked the trip with Ojos Locos.

That's Ojos Locos on the right. His ojos didn't look quite as locos the second time we met him.

That’s Ojos Locos on the right. His ojos didn’t look quite as locos the second time we met him.

While we were waiting for the tour, I took some pictures around Montezuma.

The town’s central park would be quite lovely:

park3 park2 park1 park grafitti park grafitti closeup park bench

If these assholes weren’t ruining it for everyone else:

At one point, one of them landed on Brian, causing him to cry out for his wife: "It touched me, honey! It touched me with its feet!"

At one point, one of them landed on Brian, causing him to cry out for his wife: “It touched me, honey! It touched me with its feet!”

We departed for Tortuga Island on a boat with about ten other tourists and three crew.

tortuga boat ride

I can’t say that I was too excited about snorkeling. My first and only other time snorkeling was a few years ago in Sayulita, Mexico. We were dropped off in choppy water and told to swim through a cave to the other side, where we would find a beautiful private beach. I am not a strong swimmer and the idea of breathing out of a tube in open water completely terrified me. But, I hopped out of the boat and tried it anyway, only to find that the tunnel we had to swim through was filled with floating debris and the “beach” on the other side was covered in sharp-looking rocks. We now call this “trash snorkeling.”

Tortuga Island was a lot better than trash snorkeling. However, it was also a lot more crowded. There must have been six or seven boats carrying 10-20 tourists each, which they all dumped off in the same place at the same time, creating a tangled traffic jam of Americans and Europeans swimming around in rented flippers and masks that are “cleaned” with spit and hand sanitizer.

But this time, I actually relaxed and enjoyed the quiet of being underwater. I saw lots of pretty tropical fish. And a lot of pasty white tourist bodies. No tortugas, unfortunately.

They dropped us off on the island, where we were given lunch. This place was the very definition of a tourist trap. Boats of various sizes drop their tourist cargo once or twice a day to buy souvenirs at the gift shop and rent deck chairs for $9 USD a piece.

tortuga-boat

The Love Boat soon will be making another run...

The Love Boat soon will be making another run…

On the way back to Montezuma, we were joined by a group of dolphins that swam alongside the boat and played with us. It was quite special, and almost makes up for the whale-watching tour I went on earlier this year where I saw no whales.

Speaking of wanting to see wildlife, we had been hoping to see howler monkeys throughout the trip, but so far had been unsuccessful. We could hear them around Casa Morfo—they make a deep, barking noise that echoes all over the peninsula—and we knew we were close to some while hiking through Cabo Blanco, but we hadn’t spotted any.

On the return boat ride from Tortuga Island, a nice woman named Anne who was on her post-divorce Eat, Pray, Love trip, told us that she saw howler monkeys around her hotel (the Ylang Ylang Resort) all the time. So, we went to check it out, and sure enough:

howler

We now realized why they had evaded us before. When you get close, they are as quiet as ninjas.

Tune in next time for the fifth and final installment, where I face my fear of el rio; the gang comes SERIOUSLY close to becoming an episode of I Shouldn’t Be Alive in the Costa Rican jungle; and I almost buy a very expensive statue.

**Once again, thank you to Jenn for the pictures from Tortuga Island and the shot of the howlers. And it must have been The Pelican who took the picture of Chris and the fish. Thanks, Pelican—yours is truly a dangerous, dangerous beauty.

A Vacation of Fitness and Terror, Vol. 3: Rise of The Pelican

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After being fire-drilled out of bed that morning, then enduring a harrowing drive to Puntarenas and 70 minutes on a floating strip club, followed by another hour or so in the middle seat in the back of the RAV-4, capped off by a mile of muddy jungle road up to the house where my friends would be staying, I was dead tired.

I was also nervous about meeting the owners of the property. I didn’t want them to think that I was trying to scam them.

Getting “scammed” was something that we joked about a lot throughout the trip. We were especially wary of “scammers” who might try to pull a stunt like dressing up as an elderly couple whose car had broken down on the side of the road. Likely story, abuelitos. You can’t fool us with your scams.

Anyone who looked remotely sketchy, it was like, “That guy definitely wants to scam you.” We never discussed explicitly what it meant to be “scammed,” but we all knew we didn’t want it to happen to us.

So, almost immediately upon meeting Alex and Khalida, who own the rental property, I blurted out that I would be staying at the hostel in Montezuma, just so they knew I wasn’t trying to scam them.

They seemed pretty cool. Alex is Costa Rican and Khalida is American. We weren’t sure how to pronounce her name—turns out it is the feminine form of the Afghan name “Khalid,” and is therefore pronounced Hall-i-dah. She is a very petite and pretty blonde woman whose parents did humanitarian work in Afghanistan.

We didn’t get the full story, but somehow, Khalida and Alex met and fell in love. They lived in New York/New Jersey for a while, which Alex found stifling. Especially the idea that, in some spots, you have to pay to use the beach. (He was flabbergasted by this. Pay? To use the BEACH??!… He couldn’t imagine how this was justified.)

Eventually, they moved back to Costa Rica and bought the property (dubbed “Aqua Vista”) where they now have several rental houses. They walked us from the big house, where they live with their two young daughters, down a tidy little path toward “Casa Morfo.”

We are pretty sure that “morfo” means “butterfly,” even though “butterfly” in Spanish is “mariposa.” Someone suggested that “morfo” could mean “moth,” but “House of Moths” doesn't sound like a very inviting vacation home.

We are pretty sure that “morfo” means “butterfly,” even though “butterfly” in Spanish is “mariposa.” Someone suggested that “morfo” could mean “moth,” but “House of Moths” doesn’t sound like a very inviting vacation home.

Unlike most landowners in the area, Alex and Khalida do not have dogs, therefore, they said we were much more likely to see wildlife. Alex said that we would see more animals at Casa Morfo than we would if we went to the nearby nature preserve, Cabo Blanco.

As if on cue, we were summoned to some nearby trees by a group of capuchin “white faced” monkeys.

Jenn had a snazzy new digital camera, so she was taking pictures like it was frickin' National Geographic up in here.

Jenn had a snazzy new digital camera, so she was taking pictures like it was frickin’ National Geographic up in here.

In between the two houses was a beautiful pond, full of the happiest looking koi you have ever seen. They were darting all over the place in the crystal clear water under the shade of a green tarp. A lovely bridge crossed the width of the pond. Alex told us that this was the best place on the property to get WiFi.

We wouldn’t have any internet access in the house—and with the calling capabilities on our cell phones turned off, we wouldn’t be making or getting any calls either. We would be essentially free of technology and disconnected from the world unless we came up to the pond, thus earning it the title, “The Koi Pond of Knowledge.”

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Brian was the most frequent visitor to the Koi Pond of Knowledge, or “Information Point” as he also liked to call it. The knowledge he gathered consisted mostly of football scores.

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The house had two nice-sized bedrooms, a full kitchen, and a bathroom with a washing machine and a private outdoor shower. Just out the front door was a dining area and outdoor living room complete with a small “plunge pool,” a swimming pool about four-feet deep and the size of a very large bathtub.

We decided to eat lunch, take a dip in the plunge pool, and relax for a while before venturing back into town to check me into the hostel. We hadn’t been sitting out there ten minutes, when we met some of the locals:

There was a whole family of these little guys--they're kind of like raccoons, I guess, but they come out during the day. They're called "coatis." We first saw the baby, and then a couple bigger ones, who we assumed were the parents. We named them Jim, Helen, and Liam Coati.At one point, later in the trip, Liam got a little wild one night when he found a single-serve packet of Crystal Light in Chris's backpack and proceeded to get high as a freaking kite on diet sugar drink crystals. His little sticky paw prints were all over the outdoor living space. We were surprised we didn't find him floating in the pool like Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones.

There was a whole family of these little guys–they’re kind of like raccoons, I guess, but they come out during the day. They’re called “coatis” (ko-watt-ees). We first saw the baby, and then a couple bigger ones, who we assumed were the parents. We named them Jim, Helen, and Liam Coati.  Liam got a little wild one night while we were all sleeping. He found a single-serve packet of Crystal Light in Chris’s backpack and proceeded to get high as a freaking kite on diet sugar drink crystals. His little sticky paw prints were all over the outdoor living space. I was surprised we didn’t find him floating in the pool like Brian Jones from the Rolling Stones.

coati family

After plunging into the pool—and the rum—we all agreed that it would be ridiculous for me stay in the hostel. Alex and Khalida had a single-occupancy cabin on the property that appeared to be vacant. (In fact, we were the only guests at Aqua Vista for the majority of the trip. The timing could not have been better. We had come at the end of the rainy season. In about a week, the entire area would be swarming with tourists.) Chris volunteered to go up to the big house to discuss the situation with Alex and Khalida.

He returned with a completely different option—that we all move to a larger rental house on the other side of the property, which would cost only $35 more for the week. We went and checked out the bigger house—where I would have had a real pullout sofa bed and we all would have had more room—but something didn’t feel right about it. We loved Casa Morfo. (And the big house didn’t have a plunge pool, or the view.)

For some reason, the view was really hard to capture in a photo. But there's water in the distance, and a whole lotta jungle in between.

For some reason, the view was really hard to capture in a photo. But there’s water in the distance, and a whole lotta jungle in between.

There was a day bed on the porch that had a lightweight mattress. I didn’t really want to sleep outside (even though—amazingly—we had encountered very few mosquitos), so we did some experimenting. The mattress fit nicely in the kitchen. I could bring it in at night and we could still use it outside during the day. We agreed to pay Alex and Khalida the price of the bigger house, but stay at Casa Morfo.

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My bed in its daytime capacity, next to the plunge pool.

Jenn's beautiful photo of my bedroom, aka, the kitchen.

Jenn’s beautiful photo of my bedroom, aka, the kitchen.

The outdoor dining area came to be known as the Depression Table, for its tendency to make the women talk about deep and serious things.

The outdoor dining area came to be known as the Depression Table, for its tendency to make the women talk about deep and serious things.

That night was just a lot of talking. And a lot of tequila and rum. We discussed the events of the day. That is where the legend of The Pelican truly began to take shape.

During the drive, Brian had revealed that some people refer to him as “The Pelican.”

Neither Joy, nor I, who have known him for 20 years, have ever heard him referred to as “The Pelican.”His wife has never heard anyone call him this. But, Brian insists that it’s true. It has something to do with his golfing buddies.

Regardless of how it originated, for the remainder of our time in Montezuma, Brian became a sort of mythic, Godfather-type character in my mind. Whenever something went wrong in a restaurant or if there was a traffic jam, we joked that the townspeople were like, “We are so sorry for the inconvenience, Pelican…” “Don’t you know who that is? It’s The Pelican.” I picture him dressed in white linen suits and a fedora.

We spent quite a good bit of time sketching out the beginnings of Brian’s autobiography, Dangerous Beauty: The Pelican’s Story.

The next day, we set out to walk along Montezuma’s beach. We stopped off in town beforehand to set up the logistics for a horseback riding excursion . We signed up at a place called Zuma Tours. For some reason, it was incredibly complicated. The guy who was helping us (who we affectionately refer to as “Crazy Eyes,” or “Ojos Locos”) was either really stoned or just a little bit off, and there was a lot of confusion about where we would go, when we would be there, and how we would pay. But we finally got it figured out. The guy drew us a map that included something about a yellow gate and a panaderia (a bakery), and we agreed to be at the Indiana Horse Ranch at 8:30am.

With our horseback riding plans set for the next day, we set off for our beach hike. Alex had told us that about a 45-minute walk along the shore would get us away from the tourists and onto more secluded beaches. We set off, taking note of what else was on the beach, including a chi-chi looking restaurant and hotel called the Ylang Ylang Resort, where we thought we might have lunch later. And where we suspected we might run into some celebrities like Matt Damon

A little further down, we came upon this area with dozens of multicolored rocks stacked on top of each other, a la The Blair Witch Project.

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It turns out that the rock garden and plaque are in honor of a young Swedish couple named Olof “Nicolas” Wessberg and Karen Mogensen, who founded Costa Rica’s first national park, the Cabo Blanco Nature Preserve on the tip of the Nicoya Peninsula.

According to Wikipedia, Nils and Karen moved to a farm just outside Montezuma in the 60s and became leaders in the local environmental movement as they fought against developers and big business to save what was left of the wild jungle. Sadly, Nicolas was murdered in 1974 by people who opposed his conservationist work.

This photo was stolen off the internet. This is the picture of Nicolas and Karen that appears on other educational signage near the beach.

This photo was stolen off the internet. It is the picture of Nicolas and Karen that appears on educational signage near the Montezuma beach.

(Incidentally, when we went to Cabo Blanco a few days later, these are the images of Nicolas and Karen on the memorial there):

karen-nicolas

karen

Later in the trip, I made Joy a sand sculpture of this bust of Karen Mogensen because she enjoyed it so much.

We kept walking, and walking. We went along the beach and then onto a shaded path in the tree cover. This was when Joy warned us that Chris likes to push for a little more physical exertion than one might be hoping for on vacation. He kept saying, “Just a little further” Just around that bend” “Let’s just see what’s over this hill here…” Before we knew it, we were working out.

This was when we realized what we were in for. It was like he was a personal trainer who fools you into thinking you’re having fun, when really he is interspersing cardio with quick, muscle-building exercises. We had all been duped into a Chris Parkes Fitness Vacation.

Thankfully, he took it easy on us that day and we ended up at a nice beach where we lounged about in the tide pools.

We like to call this "plunge pool south"

We like to call this “plunge pool south”

The next day, we got up early and made our way to the Indiana Ranch for horseback riding. Unfortunately, the map made no sense because one of the main landmarks we were meant to use—the panaderia—did not actually exist. And the yellow gate we were supposed to be looking for was on the wrong side of the road. But somehow, we backtracked and managed to find it.

Nativo et al

The ranch was owned by an American woman who operates a veterinary practice in the nearby town of Santa Teresa. We felt this was a good sign that the horses were well cared for. Our guides were an American man named Lee and a local named Rigo.

They led us on a leisurely ride up the country roads from the ranch, through a small town, and into a wide open meadow. We then tied up our horses and walked down some very steep “stairs” built into a hillside that led us to a small waterfall. We swam and ate pineapple.

There was a rope swing that you could use to jump from the rocks into the water. Rigo showed us how it was done, and then Chris did it. I’ve never been one for jumping off sharp rocks into waters of unknown depth, but I thought it was time to face my fear. There was a moment as I was dangling over the water that I wasn’t sure if I could let go. But that is the only rule of using the rope swing: You MUST let go. I did it, but I can’t say I enjoyed it much.

We got back on our horses and headed back toward the Indiana Ranch. Jenn and I tried to chat up Rigo using our beginner’s Spanish, but he wasn’t really a chatty kind of guy. I managed to get out of him that his horse’s name was Orion, although it took him saying it about a dozen times and then Jenn translating for me to get it. Jenn said she tried to ask him some questions, but he just basically didn’t respond.

Nativo-and-Rigo

That’s me riding my horse, Nativo, who was pretty fun and not a big jerk like the last horse I rode. With Rigo assisting.

As we were driving away from the ranch, we joked that Rigo was going to pull Brian aside and say, “Pelican, why are your women speaking to me?”

Stay tuned for Vol. 4 where the guys go fishing, the ladies have psychic massages and the gang meets an adorable Frenchman who cannot for the life of him pronounce the name of a certain leafy green vegetable.

**Thank you, once again, to Jenn Superka for letting me use her photos. There’s the one of the sunset on the boat, which, actually, Brian must have taken. Thanks, Pelican. Then there’s the horseback riding shots, the monkey, Liam, Plunge Pool South, and the lovely shot of my bedroom.

A Vacation of Fitness and Terror: Vol. 1

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Well, I finally got a job. As someone who has been unemployed for almost this whole year, I’ve been having a little culture shock upon returning to office life. I mean, this whole health insurance and 401k thing is great, but do I really have to work every day?

Fortunately, prior to starting the position, I had booked a trip to Costa Rica for Thanksgiving. So, I worked for two weeks and then I took a 10-day vacation.

In hindsight, it’s probably not a wise idea to buy a $700 plane ticket when you’re unemployed. But I was having dinner with my friends Jenn and Brian one night in August and they said, “We’re going to Costa Rica with Chris and Joy over Thanksgiving.” And I was like, “Oh really? I am coming too.”

We now refer to this as “vacation-bombing.” It’s much like photo-bombing, except instead of jumping into their picture, I jumped into their vacation.

Chris and Joy planned the trip—they chose a tiny bohemian town on the Nicoya Peninsula of Costa Rica called Montezuma. I didn’t do much research beyond that because  I knew that any trip planned by Chris and Joy would be worth vacation-bombing.

They live in San Diego. Joy is one of my oldest, dearest friends, and her husband, Chris, is a phenomenal individual. They are always doing something inspirational—running marathons, volunteering at wildlife sanctuaries, teaching English to refugees. They went on an African safari, and they have done a ton of traveling in Central America. They go down into Mexico a lot to visit friends who run a horse rescue on the Baja Peninsula.

And Jenn and Brian are probably the funniest couple ever. Brian is another one of my oldest and closest friends. He is the best storyteller I have ever known—just an incredibly quick mind and an innate sense of comedic timing. He has found his perfect partner in Jenn. She is one of those women who is always enriching herself—painting, reading interesting books, growing a beautiful vegetable garden that never seems to die. And she has a law degree. I mean, come on.

Brian and Jenn often have people over for dinners and gatherings. Brian is quite the cook. His specialties are meat, seafood, and candy. Just give the man a bunch of deer meat or 10 lbs. of crab legs and see what he can do. (Sidenote: Brian’s dream Halloween costume is to be the “We’ve Got Crab Legs” chefs from the Sea Galley commercials of the 1980s.) He is also quite the gummy aficionado. Brian enjoys any sort of gummy-based candy (worms, fruits, green army men). He once ate the full-sized gummy Coke bottle.

Unfortunately, because Joy and Chris had already booked the rental house, which only slept four, there was no way for me to stay with them. So I reserved a room at one of the Montezuma hostels. The town was less than a mile from the house, so we figured that, worst-case scenario, Chris and Brian could walk me back to the hostel at night.

I was able to get onto all of the same flights that Jenn and Brian were on except for the very first one. They left DIA for Houston at 6am, and I left at 7:15. Then we got on the same flight from Houston to Panama City, and from there to Costa Rica. Joy and Chris would fly from LAX to San Salvador before meeting up with us at the San Jose Airport. Our flight landed at 9:30pm; Joy and Chris’s flight was supposed to land at 10pm.

The plan was to take the shuttle from the airport to the Holiday Inn, where we had a room reserved under Chris and Joy’s name. The only concern was that Chris and Joy’s connection in San Salvador was tight. We were all worried they might miss it. And since none of us wanted to spend money on international calls, we weren’t going to have a way to communicate.

So, before we left, Joy and Chris suggested that we all get an app called Viber, which would allow us to call and text for free anywhere that we could get WiFi. Viber also is equipped with an array of emoticons and “stickers” with which to communicate your very important messages. Our first Viber group chat went something like this:

Chris Parkes: [sticker of poo] [sticker of happy face wearing sunglasses]

Me: “I was asking Jenn last night about this, wondering if we can use actual words or if    all of our communications will be in emoticons…”

Me again: “CP seems to be saying ‘poop happy’”

Chris Parkes: [sticker that says ‘I heart Viber’] [sticker of a beer with what looks like a bowl of jalapenos and a bunch of pretzels] [sticker of a guy eating a hamburger]

Chris Parkes: [emoticons of: a devil head, an ice cream sundae, a beer, a smoking cigarette, a pile of poo, a monkey, a creepy doll head, a ladybug, a beach chair, and a sheep]

Brian: [emoticons of a sun wearing sunglasses, some kind of lady, a high heel shoe, a bikini, a different monkey (?), a whale, a tropical fish, a different tropical fish, a crocodile, livestock of some kind, something else I don’t recognize, and a smoking cigarette]

Me: “I see this is going to be a valuable communications tool.”

The actual day of departure snuck up on me. In the two weeks prior, I had moved into a new apartment and started a new job. My trip to Costa Rica was the last thing on my mind. I stuffed a bunch of clothes into a backpack on Friday night and Brian and Jenn picked me up at 3:15am the next day to make our early morning flights.

We tried to use Viber when we got to Panama, but even when we connected with WiFi, we couldn’t get it to work. We went to the bar and had three light beers that ended up costing us $25. While sitting there, we noticed that the escalators were moving extremely slowly. They were barely inching along. But as soon as someone stepped on them, they accelerated to normal speed. We all agreed that this seems like a good way to save energy. Then we watched a music video where Kylie Minogue takes a bath in metallic paint.

The other thing about the Panama City Airport is that it’s basically a high-end mall. There are shops for all these expensive fashion designers and jewelers. How do these stores stay in business? Are travelers impulse-buying Roberto Cavalli outfits in between flights? It doesn’t make any sense.

Before we knew it—okay, about 17 hours later—it was 10:30pm and we were on the other side of Customs in the San Jose Airport, wondering if Chris and Joy were going to make it. We bought some rum and tequila at the Duty-Free store, and we waited. We still weren’t able to get Viber to work. There were a ton of people still coming through Customs, but no Chris and Joy.

This is me looking for them. Yes, I am wearing a poncho. I have a problem with unintentionally wearing clothing that look ethnically stereotypical for the place that I am going. For example, when I worked at a sushi restaurant, I died my hair black and cut my bangs really short, without even thinking about how that might be perceived. Or the time in high school when we were going to the zoo, which was in a pretty rough neighborhood with a lot of gang activity. I showed up that day wearing a do-rag. My best friend, Hari, looked right at me and was like, “You know where the zoo is don’t you?”

This is me looking for them. Yes, I am wearing a poncho. I have a problem with unintentionally wearing clothing that look ethnically stereotypical for the place that I am going. For example, when I worked at a sushi restaurant, I died my hair black and cut my bangs really short, without even thinking about how that might be perceived. Or the time in high school when we were going to the zoo, which was in a pretty rough neighborhood with a lot of gang activity. I showed up that day wearing a do-rag. My best friend, Hari, looked right at me and was like, “You know where the zoo is don’t you?”

We realized that we really didn’t have a Plan B. We were starting to get worried, but then Jenn saw a Facebook post by Joy, saying that their flight was delayed an hour. We all relaxed, knowing they were on their way, and they arrived soon after.

When we opened the doors to the main terminal, we were bombarded with cab drivers and limo services, families waiting for their relatives, people holding signs with other people’s last names on them, all crowded up behind the gates. The cabbies all shouting at us: “You need a ride?” “Where you going?” “You need cab?”

One guy got right up in Chris’s face, “Hey, hey, you need a ride?” Chris said, “No, thanks, we’re getting the Holiday Inn shuttle.” The guy tried to intimidate him: “Oh, well, I hope you made a reservation.” Chris just shrugged it off, and we got on the shuttle a few minutes later, no problem.

We literally drove less than 5 minutes—just over the highway—and we were at the Holiday Inn, which shared a parking lot with the “Fiesta” Casino and the most expensive Denny’s Restaurant in the entire world. Down the road a stretch there was a fair called “Ciudad Magic.” It had old-fashioned bumper cars and other questionably safe carnival rides. Joy really wanted to go, but we never made it.

The next day, we had about an hour’s drive to Puntarenas, where we would take a 70-minute ferry ride to the town of Paquera. From there, we had about another hour’s drive across the Nicoya Peninsula to the town of Montezuma where we were staying.

The plan was for Brian, Joy, and Chris to pick up the rental car as early as possible the next day, while Jenn and I slept in a bit.

We had to leave the hotel as early as possible to catch the 11am ferry. We absolutely had to make the 11 o’clock if we wanted to avoid driving at night to get to Montezuma. Which, believe me, we all did.

Brian had done a ton of research before the trip so he was always spouting off facts, like: Costa Rica has the third most accidents of any country in the world … and … the roads are so bad that cars get swallowed up in the potholes …

He had read that some of the roads would be paved, but most would not. And a majority of them would have portions wide enough for only one vehicle at a time, putting us at the mercy of the fates and whoever was speeding around the other side of every curve. None of us relished the idea of trying to navigate this in the absolute darkness of an island jungle town.

We conked out pretty early, with Chris volunteering to sleep on the floor so I got to sleep in a bed. I didn’t hear them leave in the morning. When I finally woke up, it was already 7:45, but they weren’t back yet. I figured I should get up, even though I felt like I could have slept for another couple days.

Literally 10 seconds after I got into the bathroom, I heard Joy, Chris, and Brian come charging into the room, yelling that we have to get up immediately, that there was a problem with the rental car and we were running way behind and we have to go now! AAAAAGGGGHHHH!

They swept in and grabbed all their bags and ran out the door, leaving Jenn and I to scramble to get dressed and gather all of our stuff. We hurried downstairs to the lobby, where we found Chris, Joy, and Brian leisurely partaking of the continental breakfast. Jenn and I were like, um, what the f, people?? 

It turned out that they had spent an hour just trying to find the right rental car place, and once they got there, they were told that the ridiculously cheap deal that Joy had been given online ($200 for an entire week) was a mistake, and the rental car company now insisted that we pay $1,000 for the week instead. After arguing with the clerk for another hour, they finally signed the contract with the higher price (and a note that it was in dispute), figuring we could deal with it when we dropped the car off at the end of the trip. Given what we had read about the roads on the Nicoya Peninsula, we weren’t entirely sure we would be bringing the car back in one piece anyway.

We were told we needed to arrive at the ferry an hour early to ensure that we could get the car on, which left us with only two hours to  find our way to Puntarenas. This involved following a hand-drawn map of poorly-labeled highways with a steady stream of traffic and hardly any exits or places to backtrack if we made a wrong turn.

We were in a time crunch, which is why Chris, Brian, and Joy had fire-drilled Jenn and I out of bed, but it wasn’t quite as urgent as they had made it seem. They joked that this was how they were going to wake us up every morning of our trip.

And thus began our Vacation of Fitness and Terror.