Costa Rica: Pura Vida

It had been a year since I last walked up to a customs desk and handed over my passport to receive a tourist visa. My adventures abroad have slowed significantly over the past few years but I am okay with that. The realities of balancing a full time job, paying the bills and growing roots in my beloved city have all contributed to this shift. Oh yeah, there’s also that business I started and the part-time work as an English language instructor that may have had something to do with it too. Travel still remains a priority in my life but it looks different than before.

That said, I was ecstatic to head south after the holidays with my partner Eric to visit Central America for the first time. We had an unexpected overnight stay in Atlanta on the first night of the trip after missing our connecting flight because of this:

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View from my window seat at DTW

We arrived in San José in the early afternoon of Friday, January 3. My Spanish was rusty and I found myself immediately grasping for common phrases and vocabulary that would have come easier only a few years ago. Rather than frustrating, I found this linguistic challenge to be stimulating and highly rewarding for even the most trivial accomplishments. For example, I had to converse with the owner of a laundromat because only one of my socks was returned. Unfortunately my handy Latin American phrase book did not prepare me for such dialogue. Nor did it offer examples on how to explain to the post office official that glue was needed to affix a stamp to a postcard because I accidentally licked off all the adhesive in my fervor to make sure it was extra sticky (whoops). Overcoming language barriers is one of my favorite parts of traveling. The not-so-anticipated conversations about socks and glue, along with the many expected ones that helped us purchase bus tickets, order food and direct taxi drivers, brought amusement to otherwise mundane tasks.

We spent the first two nights in Grecia, a small agrarian town located in the Central Valley located about 50 minutes northwest of San José. We stayed at Mango Valley which is run by a young Spanish couple from Madrid who moved to Costa Rica from a few years ago to exchange their stressful lives for pura vida. Mango Valley was situated north of the downtown area and by the end of our stay we had mastered the local bus that ran between the two. While this trip only took about 15 minutes by private transport, rides on the local bus ranged between 45 minutes to an hour because there were few actual bus stops. Instead, most riders waited along the road in front of their houses to get picked up. In addition, Mango Valley was situated at the end of the route and it was a steep climb up the narrow road to get there. Miraculously the bus drivers missed oncoming traffic, parked cars and pedestrians every time.

Mango Valley, situated in the rolling hills of the Central Valley

Mango Valley, situated in the rolling hills of the Central Valley

We only had one full day to explore, after losing a night in Atlanta, but we were able to visit Volcán Poás and take a “seed to cup” tour at a coffee plantation called Doka Estate.

Summit of Volcán Poás

Summit of Volcán Poás

On Sunday morning, after having breakfast in the shared dining area and saying goodbye to our hosts, we climbed onto the local bus one last time to begin our journey to Cahuita on the southern Caribbean coast. Luckily we made our bus connections in Grecia and San José and arrived in Cahuita by mid-afternoon. We stayed at a wonderful place called Bungalows Aché in a private bungalow, complete with a bathroom, mosquito net over the bed and a porch with our very own hammock. Bungalows Aché is located on the very edge of Cahuita National Park so the wildlife was abundant: crabs, hummingbirds, agoutis (short haired, hoofed rodents native to Central and South America), sloths and monkeys were easily viewed right from our window! For the most part this was fine with me, except for the first morning of our stay when I was jolted from slumber at 5:30am by the most blood-curling howl I had ever heard. It turned out this howl belonged to the appropriately-named and rather harmless Howler Monkey (or “hollering” monkey, as I repeatedly called them). Our time in Cahuita was divided between the beautiful beaches, hiking in the national park and eating lots of fruit, rice and beans.

Playa Negra, Cahuita

Playa Negra, Cahuita

One of my favorite traveling moments on the trip was passing through Braulio Carrillo National Park on our way to and from Cahuita. This park was created in 1978 after the completion of the Limón Highway, linking the capitol to the Caribbean Coast by road for the first time. Environmentalists successfully lobbied to conserve the important watershed, cloud and rainforests in this region with the establishment of this park. It was incredible to experience the sudden transformation of scenery from San José’s urban sprawl to a lush, green forest teeming with some of the best flora and fauna in the country.

We left Costa Rica with cameras full of pictures, backpacks brimming with coffee beans and chocolate bars and a long list of places we want to see on our next visit. Until then, we will be cultivating pura vida right here in Detroit.

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Last stop, Thailand

It was time to return. I packed my bags with only the essentials: clothes, a minimalist assortment of toiletries, cameras, an array of iDevices for the 21st century traveler, and of course, stickers. Lots of them. After bouncing around East Asia on a few dreadful layovers, thanks to my stubbornness to book the cheapest flight available, I landed in Bangkok around 11:00pm last Thursday. The next day I caught a flight up to Nakhon Phanom. That was one leg of the journey I was okay throwing out any preoccupation with cost. I was ready to leave behind the ultra-tourism of Central Thailand for the laid-back Northwest as fast as I could. The pull I felt to return to the place I called home for a year was indescribable. At 8:00pm on Friday I landed in NKP and was received by Pi Med and Pi Ponchai, two of my closest contacts in Thailand, who brought me back to Pla Pak as their house guest.

The next five days that followed have been a whirlwind of joyful reunions, delicious food and valiant attempts at conversation. I plunged head-first, as I did three years ago, into this beautiful, hospitable, mesmerizing place I’ve held so close ever since leaving. I’ve surfaced, with a few mosquito bites, a renewed appreciation for shower heads and enough happiness to last another year or two until my next visit. There are no words to explain the emotions I felt seeing my students again and greeting the teachers with whom I grew closest.

The familiarity of this place is overwhelming, though much has changed: new schools have been built, roads paved and shops opened. There is no longer aerobic [read “Arabic”] dance in the village center and I do not recognize the students in the three youngest grades at Pla Pak Noi and Wang Yang schools. The main road through town seems busier than I remembered and Wi-Fi is now abundant. Perhaps the greatest change, however is the bathroom makeover in my old teacher housing. This year’s WorldTeach volunteers have the luxury of a Western toilet and a hot water heater for the shower! I’m not jealous, really. I think bucket showers and that squat toilet made me a better person. That’s what I’m telling myself.

I met the new WorldTeach volunteer who is now at Pla Pak Noi and it is reassuring to know that the students I once taught are in exceptional hands. I found remnants of some of my old teaching tools in her classroom, which made me smile. One of the most intriguing and rewarding parts of my trip thus far has been the reclamation of the Thai language (as I understood it). I would say I retained about 20% of my vocabulary, and after five days of submersion, I’ve landed myself back at month seven in my language development. The most amusing parts of this linguistic journey have been the moments when, in Thai conversation, I understand that I’m about to do something (eat dinner) with someone (teachers), though I inconveniently miss important words that tell me the when, where and how. In moments like these, out of sheer habit after playing this game for a year, I of course say yes to it all and just wait for life to take hold. Eventually I am sitting down to a delicious Korean barbecue with people I’ve come to love, laughing at bad jokes over beer with ice. During these moments, two polar opposite thoughts dance across my mind: How did I do this for an entire year? and Why did I ever leave?

My time in Pla Pak has come to an end. Tomorrow I leave for Mukdahan, where I will rendezvous with a good friend and travel to one of the last corners of Isaan we have yet to see, Ubon Ratchathani. I’ve fallen in love all over again with the Isaan region of Thailand. After seeing the slow but gratifying work of building community in Detroit through growing food, I am more deeply moved by this agrarian society than ever before. Life revolves around what can be grown at any time of the year and routine is married to the sun and season. It’s a wonderful reminder for what life could (should?) look like back home.

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Trains, planes and sore feet: Farewell to Morocco and Spain

My adventures in Morocco have come to a close. I took an early afternoon train back to Marrakech from Meknes on Wednesday; I had originally planned on taking a later train back but that changed after failing to find public transportation to Volubilis (ancient Roman ruins outside of Meknes) and exhausting my sight-seeing check-list in the city proper. I was happy to ride the train back during the day, however, because it gave me a chance to see the beautiful Middle Atlas terrain. I was engrossed in the green pastures, groves of olive trees and farmers herding their sheep on the slopes as we descended. Sometimes I think I enjoy the in-between travels more than my destintations, as this was certainly the case for my quick trip up to Meknes.

The ride back to Marrakech went quickly, mostly due to the fact that I was fully immersed in The Help, a novel based on the lives of black women working for white families in Jackson, Mississippi during the 1960’s. I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in learning more about the Civil Rights era in the United States (and to those who think they don’t need to learn more about it, for that matter). An interesting reaction to this book in an international spotlight: When I was giving a brief synopsis to some fellow travelers at a hostel in Essaouira, a Swiss woman broke in (having missed the beginning of my explanation) and asked if the book took place in South Africa. When I said no, it was based in the United States, she was genuinely surprised. And then I was surprised (and saddened) that my country’s painful history elicited such a reaction.

As I mentioned earlier, I changed my train time to Marrakech. The officials at the Meknes station did not have a problem with this, nor did the first steward on board who checked my ticket. About five hours into the ride, however, a second steward came by to check tickets again. He most definitely had a problem with it. He spoke little English and I spoke no French so we were not exactly meeting in the middle. He sternly told me to either pay for the ticket (again) or pay double in Marrakech. When I refused to pay, he asked for my ID and confiscated both that and my ticket. I was just glad I handed over an old student ID and not my passport. Somehow I still managed to enjoy the ending to my book but I was really stressing about paying double for a ticket I had already purchased. We pulled into the Marrakech station after dark and I couldn’t help but imagine the train steward waiting at my car’s exit with police ready to detain me for being uncooperative or something…I really should avoid thinking about dramatic, Hollywood-esque scenerios in moments like this. Despite my nervousness, I disembarked without so much as a nod from the employees. I cautiously made my way down the platform towards the station and there in the distance I saw the disgruntled steward making his way towards me. I greeted him with a hesitant bonjour. He looked at me suprised and said, “You speak French?” I said no, explaining that I’ve only picked up a few words along the way while in Morocco. He then handed me my ID and ticket, saying that the staff in the station are allowing me to use the invalid ticket “this time only” but next time I will have to pay the fine. I was of course very grateful and relieved to hear this but I couldn’t help but smile to myself at this explanation, as if I had a lot of illegal Moroccan train-hopping plans in the future.

From there, the rest of my night just got better. I met another solo female traveler, Sandy, at the bus stop and we ended up sharing a room at the same place I stayed with Alyssa and Andy a week ago. We had a different room, though, and it was quite an upgrade! We each had a double bed (Alyssa and I shared one last week), there was an attached bathroom with hot water and I even found a space heater tucked away in the corner. It was also decorated with beautiful tapestries and decorative metal lampshades. All of this came with a higher price tag, of course, but I had some extra dirham that I knew would be of little use to me in about 12 hours so I didn’t mind. My new friend and I then headed to the main square for dinner, where we discovered that we were both social workers. The next day we also realized we had checked out the same Lonely Planet guide book (same edition, cover and all) from our respective libraries.

I think many travelers will agree with me that there’s a breaking point during a trip where rules like staying on budget, remaining preoccupied with seeing all the important highlights of a city and eating only local foods just goes out the window. Even though it was only about two weeks of travel, that dinner was it for me. I was tired but happy to be back in familiar Marrakech with a new travel companion. I felt no reservation plopping down on a plastic seat in a touristy restaurant overlooking the square. In addition to ordering the “traditional Moroccan soup” (which, by the way, tasted like SpaghettiO’s), I had a side of fries and Orange Fanta from a can. I was happy to wrap up my time in Morocco. I slept soundly in my spacious bed that night and woke up early to shower, pack and eat one last delicious warm crepe and honey with Sandy before heading to the airport.

I’m now in Madrid, waiting for my flight back to the States tomorrow morning. After a rather sleep-deprived evening due to loud roommates, I have come to the conclusion that anything more than an 4-bed dorm is now off-limits for my future travels. As a 26-year old woman who’s done her fair share of hostelling around the world, I can say that I will not miss the bunk beds and the late night rude awakenings to party-goers. I feel old for saying it but I don’t care: some of these youth do not know the meaning of hostel ettiquete! Note to the greenhorns: slamming your metal locker door into my metal headboard while I am (was) sleeping is not winning you any points.

Despite this final, unfortunate sleeping arrangement, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this trip. I wish I had more days with Alyssa but she will be home before we know it (promise!). It has also been a solid confirmation of how liberating and empowering independent traveling is for women. Not once did I feel unsafe or without control of a situation. Like others have encouraged before me, I cannot stress enough how important it is to experience this at least once. Women, don’t listen to what people say about the dangers out there. You are certainly more than capable of independent travel so shake off those who say otherwise, pack your bags and go!


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