pura vida (jayemsey x costa rica)

Aaand...we’re back! Rekha and I haven’t traveled together since our U.K. trip back in 2017, but while she was on spring break from med school, we ventured to Central America to go to Costa Rica! Our original plan was Iceland, but tickets were too expensive, so we opted for Costa Rica instead (polar opposites, I know). And it was a great contingency plan. I do want to see the glaciers eventually, but spending ten days in the jungles of Costa Rica was an incredible experience. There were some exhausting parts...a lot went wrong, and we were unprepared for a lot of the physical activity that comes with spending ten days in a jungle, but I also haven’t been so relaxed in years.

day 1: alajuela

I leave for the airport at 10 pm New York time for a 1:30 am flight. I’ve got a long almost 12 hours of travel ahead of me.

By the time we take off, it’s dark out. But not pitch black. The magical thing about being above the clouds in the early hours of the morning is that you can see the very edge of the world yawning into the abyss, and the entire Milky Way of stars dotting the sky above it. There’s a storm on the horizon somewhere; I can see lightning crackling in the small corners.

I arrive for my layover in El Salvador just in time to see the dusky oranges of sunrise layer themselves over the blue of the night sky. It’s a long wait. It suddenly occurs to me, as I’m trying to ask the airport agents where to go, that three years of high school Spanish classes did not adequately prepare me for this moment. I regret so many things in life, but none so much as not keeping up with Spanish. It’s much easier to learn than Mandarin, as I discovered my sophomore year of college the hard way. As we climb into the sky, the green of the landscape glows golden in the mid-morning light. I make a mental note to come back here someday, for longer than three hours.

As we climb into the sky, I admire the vibrancy of the landscape in the golden mid-morning light. It’s incredibly green and beautiful. I make a mental note to come back here someday, for longer than three hours.

Costa Rica is an anomaly. It’s one of the happiest countries in the world and one of the few nations without a standing army since it eliminated it in 1949, replacing it with “an army of teachers”:

The literacy rate in Costa Rica is approximately 97% ... Universal public education is guaranteed in the constitution; primary education is obligatory, and both preschool and high school are free. Students who finish 11th grade receive a Costa Rican Bachillerato Diploma accredited by the Costa Rican Ministry of Education.

It also has very progressive environmental policies dedicated to conservation and preservation, which is why it’s known for its incredibly rich biodiversity (it ran for 300 days on 100% renewable energy last year), and “pura vida,” the philosophy of living life fully and happily, is part of the local lexicon.

I did a lot of research before I left, and I kept reading the same story over and over—”I was working long hours at a corporate job I hated, so I decided to move to Costa Rica.” And while there are plenty of reasons to scoff at moving-to-a-tropical-country-to-find-yourself stories, I really can understand why people move there.

Landing in Costa Rica is unlike anything I'm used to. Below are rolling hills a rich, velvety shade of green, dotted with trees, mountains haloed by soft white clouds idling past, and a huge stretch of achingly blue sky, the kind that makes your heart sing with possibility. It’s one of the most beautiful landscapes I’ve ever seen. I immediately get the sense that I’m in a very different kind of place.

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I've only slept a couple of hours, but suddenly I'm wide awake. My first mission is always the same in every country: Get a SIM, get cash, get a taxi. Simple and painless.

I arrive at the hostel and drop off my luggage. We’re staying in the Alajuela province, close to the airport, because we’re leaving pretty early on Monday. Planning this trip was a bit of a mess (edit: foreshadowing); we were all over the place due to work and med school and life, and so Rekha’s actually arriving a day later than I am and we didn’t get to stay in the hotel that we wanted to. But secretly, I don’t mind. I’ve felt a little guilty lately, because even though I love Airbnbs, I feel like I should contribute to local communities when I can. Staying at a locally-owned place feels a bit better.

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The streets of Alajuela remind me of Southeast Asia mixed with Mexico. It has that same kind of feel, with American imports like KFC, McDonald’s, and (interestingly) Taco Bell mixed with local institutions. Motorcycles are a popular form of transit, and street fruit carts are plentiful. I’m most fascinated by a Radio Shack, mostly because I can’t remember the last time I saw one in the U.S.

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First, I stop at a nearby convenience store to add more data to my SIM card. This turns out to be a challenge. The woman at the counter speaks zero English, and I just don’t have the vocabulary in Spanish to describe what I mean (this also happened earlier at Immigration, when they asked me my occupation and understood neither “advertising” nor “strategist” and I was at a loss for words). We end up using Google Translate—what a time to be alive!—and I am finally on my way.

When I walk around New York, I’m always listening to music. But every so often I’ll accidentally leave my headphones at home, and I’ll have to walk through the city without it, and it reminds me that sounds are such an important part of experiencing a place. Walking here and listening to the sounds of people enjoying a Saturday afternoon makes me feel both a sense of contentment and a sense of wonder.

The streets here don’t have names, which makes navigating significantly more difficult, and I’m going solely by a screenshot of a map I took earlier. But I hear music and follow it, and I stumble upon Parque Central, a little square shaded by breezy palm trees. There’s a man playing Italian love songs on his guitar, and a bouncy castle for a child’s birthday party nearby.

I sit and listen for a while, and from there I head to Mercado Central, in the middle of the city center, an enclosed market full of sodas, or local eateries, little fruits and vegetable vendors, clothing shops, and butcher counters.

The market reminds me of the Central Market in Malaysia or the Old Market in Cambodia. I always marvel at the fact that cultures on opposite sides of the world develop such similar things, independently of one another, and I always feel extremely lucky that I’ve seen enough of the world to make these comparisons. It feels very local—everyone is here to eat and shop, and I haven’t seen many tourists yet.

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Kevin instructed me to order casado, which is just beans and rice. “But they make it so well,” he told me. So that’s what I’m on the hunt for.

I am overwhelmed by choice—there’s so much delicious-looking food. But they all appear to have similar offerings, so I finally strengthen my resolve and sit down at the nearest metal counter. I feel so much anxiety when speaking in another language, especially one in which I am nowhere close to fluent. I’ve also noted that I am the only Asian person I’ve seen all day, and people are openly staring. I’m suddenly very self-conscious of my pronunciation.

“¿Qué quieres?” the friendly-looking woman asks me, and I panic because I have no idea. She says a lot of things in Spanish, and I tell her (in Spanish) that I don’t speak Spanish. She laughs. “¿No hablo español? Ay, no hablo chino!” I forget that people here probably think I’m actually from China. I ask her if she speaks English but she says no, so we converse in Spanish of varying fluencies. I finally settle on casado con pollo and a concoction of strawberries and watermelon that she blends right in front of me. Both are delicious. The casado is perfect; simple, yet elegant. It reminds me of a Latin-American version of Singapore’s chicken rice, actually. The chicken is juicy, the rice is expertly seasoned, and even the green beans are flavorful. I clear the entire plate, and I’m satisfied with both my first meal in Costa Rica and the fact that I was able to order it myself.

When I return, I’m greeted by a very grouchy-looking but surprisingly friendly cat; she cuddles up to me immediately. “Darla,” the housekeeper says, and for a minute I forget how to say “cat” in Spanish, when I realize that she’s telling me the cat’s name. Darla won’t leave my room, so I pet her for a bit, and then for the first time in what feels like years, I fall asleep.

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When I wake up, it’s almost dinnertime. I want tacos or empanadas, but I also figure I can get that anywhere, so I order beef soup. I haven’t seen much of it here. It’s literally beef and vegetables in broth, with rice on the side, and it’s actually very good! I’ve decided that I need to stop saying I don’t like vegetables because the truth is I don’t like the way Americans cook vegetables. My mom is a great cook, but steamed broccoli has never, ever appealed to me. In Asia (and apparently Latin America), they cook their vegetables really well, in lots of spices and sauces, and I actually enjoy them. It always reminds me of something Preeti once told me; she said, “I could never be a vegetarian and just eat salads,” and I felt that because salads are the worst. The soup is good, but I lowkey still want empanadas. I resolve to get some tomorrow.

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day 2: alajuela

I wake up to the sound of dogs barking and birds chirping, which is curious because there are no dogs at this hostel. The birds sound like something out of a movie, and the rushing wind reminds me of the rolling sounds of the ocean at home.

Rekha is finally here! She took an overnight flight, and now she’s here to explore with me. We head to Mercado Central again, but it’s closed on Sundays so we stop at Musmanni, a local chain, to get some pastries for breakfast instead. We also check out a nearby mini-mart to get some snacks (no 7-Eleven that I’ve seen yet)—snacks are always the best way of getting a sense of the local flavor (ha), and I pick up a bag of sour cream and onion yucca chips and some cheese-flavored rolled corn chips that look like Takis. And lastly, we go to McDonald’s, because they also have great regional things. In Costa Rica, it’s strawberry-flavored ice cream cones. And they are delicious.

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We go back and Rekha naps, because she’s just traveled for a full 12 hours; I write a little bit and watch a movie. I prefer to stay inside during the hottest parts of the day, especially here, where the sun is strong and there’s little shade, a shocking contrast from the 30°F weather back home in New York.

It’s St. Patrick’s Day back home, which is funny because it was exactly two years ago that Rekha and I celebrated in San Diego together. It was our first (and last) time going out in downtown San Diego and we drank green beer and danced at an Irish pub, witnessed a man casually throw up into a potted plant at another bar, flirted with a couple of guys and then immediately tossed their numbers after finding out they were garden-variety self-described “entrepreneurs,” and then dipped early to watch Beauty and the Beast in theaters.

We go to La Calle Beer & Street Food for dinner. Rekha and I have realized that getting around is not without challenges—we each have three years of Spanish under our belts, so communicating with people has been an exercise in filling in the gaps for each other, and drawing on the minimal vocabulary we have. I have pulled-pork sliders and some excellent pineapple basil soda, and Rekha gets nachos.

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We watch Love, Death & Robots back at the hostel which, despite its frenetic trailer, is actually so good. I found it randomly on Netflix and was intrigued because it’s an entirely animated anthology series by David Fincher. It reminds me of Black Mirror with its final gut-punch twists, but with more of an apocalyptic feel. And way more blood and nudity than I was expecting. But we love that each episode is self-contained into 15 minutes or less; it’s efficient and effective storytelling at its best, and covers a lot of interesting topics like existentialism, colonialism, and vengeance. Whereas Black Mirror feels like a warning about the imminence of technology, Love, Death & Robots feels like an exercise in piecing together our humanity after the fact. I would definitely recommend it.

day 3: la fortuna

We leave in the morning to the airport to pick up our car rental, only to ‎realize that we accidentally it booked from the San Jose airport...in California. Honestly, it was a really stupid mistake on my part because the website kept glitching when I was trying to reserve it and I'd accidentally selected the wrong one.

Luckily, Rekha and I are resourceful, so we quickly book a shuttle to La Fortuna, arrange a car rental for tomorrow, and head out. The whole thing only takes 45 minutes to arrange everything, and we marvel at the ease of it all. Fabio, our shuttle driver, is both talkative and knowledgeable; he points out different plants and things native to the region as we drive.

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The van climbs higher and higher into the mountains, up winding roads and into the clouds, past groupings of pastel-colored buildings with wavy tin rooftops. It’s almost impossible to see anything through the thick curtain of mist, and we’re feeling more and more reassured that we did not drive ourselves. It’s crazy—just 20 minutes ago it was bright and sunny but now we’re entirely enveloped in soft grey cloud.

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Hiring Fabio turns out to be a great investment. He takes us to La Paz, one of Costa Rica’s more famous waterfalls, and we join a bunch of other tourists in taking long exposure shots of the waterfalls. This is our first waterfall in Costa Rica, and it’s beautiful. So green and lush, and the water is perfectly clear, gathering in a turquoise pool at the base of the rocks. Waterfalls are such a brilliant natural phenomenon. They’re mesmerizing; I could probably watch them for hours. 

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He also stops at a restaurant at the side of the road, and at first I think we’re going to eat. But instead he takes us to the balcony, where he says there are lots of birds. I can see that they’ve nailed fruit to the beams to attract them, and there are a handful of hummingbirds flitting excitedly around the bird feeders. I don’t think I’ve ever seen hummingbirds this close before, or perhaps I’ve never seen any stay so still. They’re so close I can see their tiny pearlescent heads, covered in beautiful green-blue feathers so tiny they look like fish scales.

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It’s raining a little bit when we finally descend into La Fortuna, and Fabio stops the van near a crowd of people standing on the side of the road.

“Oso perezoso,” he says, pointing to the tree. We can’t quite make it out at first, but then we realize that it’s a sloth! He’s just chilling in the treetop, living his little sloth life, oblivious to the fact that about a dozen people are watching him intently, fascinated. I can’t remember what perezoso means, so we Google Translate it and delight in the fact that the direct translation is “lazy bear.” How cute. Fabio asks us to repeat the English word. “Sloth,” he says, marveling at the strange sound.

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We drop off our luggage at our hotel and head to Sal y Pimienta for lunch, which has a gorgeous view overlooking the Arenal Volcano, where we eat casado and drink fruit juice. It’s absolutely stunning. While we’re eating, some of the diners suddenly run to the window, where we see a toucan! I don’t think I’ve ever seen one in real life, except maybe once at the San Diego Zoo when I was a kid. He’s so cute! And much smaller than I imagined toucans to be. He’s sitting in a tree enjoying his lunch.

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Afterward we check into the beautiful Nirú Rainforest Suites. We liked this place because it was just a tiny cluster of little individual guest suites, each with its own kitchen, hot tub, and little porch looking out onto an amazing view of the volcano, and a hot tub in the suite. It’s one of the nicest places we’ve stayed at, especially because we did Airbnbs and hostels the last time we traveled together. The road to get here, however, was a different story—it was so rocky and full of potholes that we were rattling around inside the van the whole way here. Again, we note that it was a happy accident that we were forced to hire Fabio, because the sedan we’d originally rented would not have made it.

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The view from our suite

The view from our suite

Continuing our tradition of being ridiculously indulgent, we end our day at Tabacón Thermal Resort & Spa, a natural hot springs resort. There are so many pools and waterfalls that it gives the illusion of being secluded, even though it’s a popular spot for visitors. We eat dinner at sunset and then relax in the hot springs, stargazing into the clear night sky and talking about life while sitting under a warm waterfall. It’s perfect. And we definitely deserve it after the day we’ve had.

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day 4: la fortuna

We leave to pick up our rental car early in the morning, this time with a driver named Leo. It’s very apparent that Costa Ricans are as passionate as they are hospitable; everyone we meet seems to have a genuine love of the country, and is eager to share their culture and history with us. Even at 7 am. Rekha talks to him while I mostly listen, as I am still waking up.

“Do you know why it’s called ‘La Fortuna’?” Leo asks us. We answer no. He tells us that the town’s original name was “El Burío,” but after the volcano erupted in 1968, destroying much of the land but miraculously leaving the town untouched, they referred to it as “La Fortuna,” or “the fortune.” Driving through it, seeing the rich landscape and abundance of farms, I’m reminded of Hawaii. Especially when Leo informs us that the pineapple is Costa Rica’s #1 export. Coffee is #2.

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We finally get to the Avis and pick up our car and we’re off. It’s very strange to drive in another country, having to struggle to read the signs in Spanish and monitor speed in kilometers. But other than that, it’s a pretty easy drive, just a long stretch of road ahead of us, with massive, grey clouds billowing on the horizon. One odd (and rather dangerous) thing is that people simply pass you on the road if they feel you’re going too slowly, dipping into the opposite lane and then cutting smoothly in front of you. It’s not a rude thing here. It makes me nervous at first, afraid that we’ll be struck by an oncoming car, but I quickly get the hang of it. And since the roads are so long and flat, it’s easy to see if there are any cars coming. I still insist on driving very slowly, staying carefully under the speed limit. Grandma habits die hard.

We stop at Annia's Empanadería, which Leo pointed out to us on the way here, a little roadside stand that he promised us was excellent. We grab two empanadas and some pineapple juice; each one is only around a dollar. Mine is piping hot and filled with expertly-seasoned beef; it’s much flatter and larger than the empanadas I’ve had before, but it’s delicious. I instantly regret not getting another one, but we’re already on the road again, this time back to Místico Hanging Bridges Park.

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We kind of wander through the forest at our own pace, listening in on a mom and her kid on a private tour. The tour guide points out a little baby eyelash viper curled around a branch, and after that, we spot a bunch of them.

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The forest is quiet but crackling with life—we can feel the energy of it in the soft patter of rain on our heads and the chirping of the birds and the smell of the mossy rocks around us. It’s insane that there’s so much that we can’t see, but everything alive and everything is living its life.

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Sloth butt

Sloth butt

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Monkey ladder

Monkey ladder

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On our way out of the park, we see a couple on a motorcycle stopped at the entrance, so we stop too. As it turns out, they’re admiring a coati, a curious little animal that looks like vaguely like a raccoon. He sniffs around our car for a bit, and then darts back into the jungle.

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And with that, our last stop of the day is La Fortuna Waterfall, another famous waterfall hidden away behind a bunch of suburbs, which is very strange. At this point, we’re very tired, but we make it down the 500 steps (to the waterfall).

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And it’s worth it, because the waterfall is truly spectacular. The pool at the base is a brilliant shade of turquoise with so much rich plant life surrounding it, in shades of velvety green, fed by the constant supply of fresh, clean water. We manage to get some great pictures—this entire trip so far has been a great practice session for Rekha and I, because we have the same Sony Alpha camera and neither of us knew how to do long exposure shots until this trip. And there’s just so much beauty here, so many things that are either untouched by humans or so well-preserved that you almost can’t tell the difference.

The waterfall is massive, maybe 20 stories high. The word “waterfall” sounds passive, benign. But watching the water absolutely pour down from so high, and feeling so tiny, you get a sense of how nature, especially water, always finds a way, and we are at its mercy. It makes me think of the Malibu and Calabasas fires. There was plenty of blame going around, plenty of fingers pointed at people who should have handled the fires better or quicker. But the point is that when it comes down to it, homes should never have been built in such a hostile environment, especially when global warming is such a threat. It’s sad to see these things happen but it’s also hard to miss that it’s because of our own stupidity.

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The trek back up is torturous; we’ve had a long day and our legs are tired, but we still have to walk 500 steps back up. I’m exerting myself more than I have in months, and also we’ve eaten casado for like 70% of our meals here so far, so it’s a struggle.

We collapse into the car, hot and tired and a little bit wet from the tremendous spray of the waterfall. Now all we have to do is drive to our third location this trip, Monteverde. This is one of the crowning jewels of Costa Rica; it literally means “green mountain” and is supposedly the source of some of the richest biodiversity in the country.

The drive there is...something else. We start out along the coast and witness a beautiful sunset, but it quickly becomes dark and we’re left navigating winding roads in the middle of a forest with only a five-foot radius of vision before us. And then the road just stops, and we’re driving on nothing but dirt and rocks. There’s one area before we begin our ascent up the mountain where we’re on a narrow dirt road covered with rocks and full of potholes, sandwiched between two fields of tall grass. We can’t see anything except what is immediately in front of us, and it’s so rocky that we’re jolted from side to side every time we press the ignition, even though we’re going around two miles per hour. There’s also very little cell service, so neither of us can tell if we’re going in the right direction every time we reach a fork in the road. It occurs to each of us, separately, that if we blow a tire, we are stuck here until morning and will have to sleep in the car, but neither of us wants to say anything to incite panic from the other. I thank god, again, that my mistake led to us getting this car, because I am positive the sedan we originally had would have left us stranded. I can hear tiny rocks flying up every time we move, and feel the jagged ones under our wheels, and I pray that the tires will hold for the duration of this trip. Or if not, just the duration of this hell of a drive. We note the wavy patterns in the dirt going up the mountain, like rumble strips on a freeway, and realize that they’re there for traction for cars when it rains, so that you don’t just slide down the mountain. It’s a terrifying realization. We’re practically delirious now, exhausted but trying to stay as alert as possible, laughing at the ridiculousness of the situation. No one warned us about this drive, mostly because no one we knew had gone from La Fortuna to Monteverde, much less at night, and we have no choice but to continue until after what feels like years, we hit some semblance of a road. It’s still filled with potholes and rocks, and there are still large, unpaved patches, but driving on anything more than just plain dirt and rocks is a sweet relief.

We finally, finally pull into the parking lot of our hostel, Selina Monteverde. We are grateful that we decided to book our own room rather than sharing, quickly drop off our luggage, and head to the café that’s closing in ten minutes. It’s a hip place, tailor-made for millennials, cheap but well-decorated, and there are already a bunch of people socializing over pizza and beers. We grab a table and order some food before the kitchen closes, and we eat pizza in silence, grateful for the lack of motion and the free wifi.

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day 5: monteverde

We have a low-key, relaxing day today, which we scheduled very deliberately, to recover from our day yesterday and prepare for the Cloud Forest tomorrow.

We stop by Stella’s Bakery Art Coffee Shop for some breakfast. I get a slice of berry pie, a basil mozzarella croissant (yum), and a strawberry mango smoothie. We grab them to go, and head to Café Choco Don Juan, a place famous for its chocolate and coffee, two other famous Costa Rican exports. After last night's adventures, leisurely enjoying a cup of coffee is a small luxury. It's a beautiful day outside, perfectly sunny and breezy, weather San Diego would be envious of.

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Everything moves at a much slower, more relaxed pace here. Everything is rich and green and full and lively. Whenever I’m on vacation in places like this, I think, I could live here. But I think it’s more of an indication of a much-needed vacation than an actual desire. I think I love New York energy a little too much to ever live in a place like this.

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We go back to Selina and relax; Rekha naps and I do a little bit of reading and a little bit of lettering. It’s just a really nice day to be outside. Some of the mist has settled over the hostel, and it’s a little cooler and greyer now. Mist always fascinates me, because it’s literally just...tiny drops of water? But it somehow blocks out sunlight and warmth.

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We finish the night at Soda La Amistad, a family-run soda a little ways down the mountain, actually close to where we were earlier. There aren’t any street signs here either and there’s very little signal, so we simply have to follow screenshots of Google Maps directions on our phones, trying to decipher whether the little squiggles are side streets or just random markings. It reminds me of when I first learned to drive and I didn’t have a GPS or unlimited data, so I’d have to print out MapQuest directions and hope that I had a good sense of what “500 feet” was.

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This place is clearly a hotspot for tourists—the inside is decorated with postcards, artifacts, and flags from all over the world. Apparently they really love Canada. There’s a translation sheet on the table to help you order. The casado is delicious; it’s paired with a slow-smoked pork rib, and it’s the perfect meal for the end of the night before head back to the hostel and sleep.

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day 6: monteverde

Today we go to the famous Monteverde Cloud Forest Preserve! It’s just a five-minute drive from our hostel, which is why we chose this hostel, so we make it out the door by 8 am. We have to wait a bit for tickets—they only let a certain number of people into the forest at each time so it doesn’t get crowded, but we don’t mind because we prefer it uncrowded. We amuse ourselves by doing the “Florida Man Challenge,” or Googling “Florida Man” along with your birthday and seeing the headline that comes up. Mine was “Florida Man Calls 911 to Complain About Portion Size at Restaurant,” so not the worst one. If anything, I understand Florida Man a little bit more now.

"Ahh, you finally made it!" says the guy taking our tickets. “Selina?” he asks. We answer yes, but are confused as neither one of us recognizes him. "My friend is playing a reggae show later," he continues, which only adds to our confusion. After we’ve walked away, I ask Rekha if we know him, or if he saw us leave the hostel, but she has no idea who he is either. It takes us a good five minutes to realize that he noticed our wristbands, given to us by the hostel, and that the reggae show is at the hostel and not in the forest. My mom used to say, “So smart, yet so dumb” to refer to various people throughout our childhood, and it’s times like this when that resonates with me more strongly than ever.

I really cannot emphasize how green it is. Costa Ricans are big on preservation, but according to Wikipedia, it was Quakers that first settled in the Monteverde as we know it now. They were families from Alabama that purchased land in Costa Rica, to avoid the Korean War draft, which was at odds with Quaker pacifist ideology, and chose Costa Rica because of its lack of an army. They were the ones that named this place “Monteverde,” and since then, various biologists and conservationists have advocated for its preservation. The first tourists came in the 1980s, but since then, it has been well-regulated to ensure its conservation. Monteverde is a shining example of the fact that Costa Rica is a global leader in sustainability—accommodations “favor green practices, local farmers tend to favor organic or low chemical production, and the community is committed to preserving significant portions of wilderness and promoting reforestation in previously damaged areas.”

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There’s also just a lot of strange stuff in here, plants that look like they were lifted from a Dr. Seuss illustration or a science fiction movie. It’s crazy to think that all of these are things that have developed naturally, probably for evolutionary purposes.

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I admire that Monteverde is a wildly popular tourist attraction, and yet it’s still so well-preserved. I think it’s the whole tragedy of the commons thing; people always think that someone else will take care of it. But leading by example, Costa Rica shows that it is possible to share a place with a lot of people and maintain respect for it.

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One thing I really enjoy is the signs that line the trail, guiding you on how to experience the forest:

Take a moment at this spot and count all the different sounds that you hear; there are as many as the shades of green around you. Rest awhile; this is an opportunity to contemplate. Now your senses are open and as alert as a feline; your naturally optimistic expectations desire to discover and rediscover more secrets of the embracive magic of the Monteverde Cloud Forest (edit: I did not know “embracive” was a word, but it encapsulates a lot of things I’ve tried to articulate in my life).

It is now your turn to enjoy the next section of this trail. We invite you to continue to the continental divide, to pause at each of the three lovely lookouts toward the Pacific slope and walk to the La Ventana lookout where one of your feet will be on the Pacific slope and the other on the Caribbean slope. This lookout is a magical point where you will be able to appreciate Elfin Forest and one of the best vistas of this Preserve.

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Parts of the forest literally look like something out of a fairytale, with mossy trees reaching over the pathways and rocky staircases worn away by travelers that nature is slowly taking back. At one point we’re standing on the edge of the mountain, high above the sea, watching the flowers on the mountain sway with the wind and feeling the cool mist float around us like a veil. And then all of it clears suddenly and we can see all the way across the cluster of impossibly green mountains under a clear blue sky and a warm, summery sun.

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Like in Místico, the biodiversity is most apparent when you’re deep in a forest. There’s so much life all around us. Even in the stillness, there are always signs of quiet activity just humming along.

In the forest, the death of one is life for others. This giant, in falling, opened a space making way for the sun’s rays to reach the soil, stimulating the birth of seeds that have waited many years for the moment to begin their life. 

Observe the parts of the tree in decomposition. Although not apparent, it feeds the larvae of thousands of insects, from ants to the beautiful metallic scarab beetles. They feed on the rotting wood, returning to the soil of its riches. All these nutrients will strengthen the growth of the future plants. In other words: here death does not exist; only life in transformation.

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LOOK HOW BIG THIS LEAF IS

LOOK HOW BIG THIS LEAF IS

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Rekha had mentioned a bird earlier called a resplendent quetzal, supposedly very rare and famous for its colorful plumage. And we actually see one! We hear him first—his call sounds a little like a dog crying mixed with a dove cooing. The colors are just as vibrant in person—his feathers are bright jewel tones, ruby and emerald, colors I’ve never seen in nature before. He’s actually really cute. He’s just perched in a tree grooming himself, and when he takes flight, his feathers flash in the sunlight.

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We leave the preserve and grab a late lunch at Sabor Tico; both of us are starving. It seems to be a fairly touristy place, but the food is good nonetheless. I get chorreadas, a kind of corn pancake like a cross between a tortilla and an arepa, tamàles, and French fries. We meet a very needy stray cat that simply sits at our feed until we give him fries. Rekha and I mutually agreed on this restaurant because we’d both seen it recommended on different travel websites, but we agree that the local sodas are better. It’s a classic example of the importance of considering the source of the information. Of course travel websites recommend good food, but the locals will know the best food. This is why I never trust Yelp reviews of Asian places—the majority of reviews are written by non-Asian people who complain about the service. And in most places in Asia, customer service isn’t a thing; you either eat there because you like the food or you don’t. But you’re not going to not come back because the aunties at the hawker stalls are a little brusque or they get impatient with you when you only speak English. Anyway.

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We made a friend!

We made a friend!

On the drive back to our hostel, we see a beautiful, clear rainbow stretching across the sky in a perfect arc, which is really just the cherry on top of a great day. The rest of it is spent in bed, reading, napping, and playing Words With Friends.

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We end the day with late-night pizza at the hostel café and see the guy from the Cloud Forest front desk. We avoid eye contact.

day 7: jacó & quepos

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In the morning, we leave Monteverde for Jacó, a little coastal town. But first, we stop at the crocodile bridge. It’s along the way, a standalone attraction kind of in the middle of nowhere, with a couple of convenience stores and gift shops flanking it. When you look down into the water, there they are, covered in mud, just chilling. I assume that when you have no natural predators, life is pretty relaxing. I’m startled by how big they are? For some reason whenever I think of crocodiles, I always think they’re these little things ranging from the size of your hand to the size of a human, but the smallest crocodiles are thirteen feet long. I decide that crocodiles terrify me and that I’m perfectly content viewing them from a distance.

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We grab some chips and pineapple juice from a convenience store and continue on to Jacó, where it’s absolutely pouring, which is insane considering that half an hour ago at the crocodile bridge it was so oppressively hot we thought we might faint.

We only have one activity planned for Jacó, and it’s an Airbnb Experience called “10 Hidden Waterfalls with Local Cuisine.” Our tour guide, Josue, and his brother drive us to Las Monas (“the monkeys”) Rainforest. On the way there, they play “Livin’ On a Prayer” and "Total Eclipse of the Heart," what I suppose they assume is American music. It’s a stark contrast from the upbeat Latin pop music they were playing before.

I suppose what they assume is American music.‎ It's a lot different from the upbeat Latin pop music they were playing before.

The tour description told us that we’d see a bunch of waterfalls hidden deep in the forest, but it didn’t mention that this is actually someone’s private property. Josue retrieves a key hidden in a milk jug and unlocks the gate; this is definitely something we never could have found on our own.

“These people live with no electricity, no power. No Netflix,” he says knowingly, gesturing to the small houses tucked away behind the trees. Josue is our age and was born in La Fortuna but has lived in Jacó for 15 years.

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“You know ‘pura vida'?” he asks. We say yes, and he nods. “We use it for everything.”

And I notice it's true, from “you're welcome,” to a greeting when you pick up the phone, to a cry of pure freedom as you jump off of a waterfall.

The hike starts out easy and quickly gets...difficult, to say the least. I am not athletic and Rekha rock climbs but hasn’t been to the gym in a while because med school, so we’re both struggling a little bit. But at one point I have to stop completely because I’m so out of breath and I actually feel dizzy. Rekha points out that my face is bright red, which alone is strange as I don’t really flush easily, and diagnoses me as being just on the cusp of getting heat stroke. If you Google, it heatstroke is defined as “prolonged exposure to or physical exertion in high temperatures.” So yep. That almost happened. The Airbnb page was very misleading; both of us had assumed that this would be a casual hike, but no, it’s us literally wading through pools of water fully clothed with hiking boots on, and pulling ourselves up to the rocky tops of the waterfalls.

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The water feels so nice in the hot weather. Josue says the water is a little brown because of the rain, but normally you can see straight to the bottom. He has us climb over to the base of the waterfall and just sit there, with gallons of water pounding on our heads and cascading over our shoulders, like we are one with the waterfall. It’s...an experience, for sure. A very loud one.

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Afterward, thoroughly exhausted and soaking wet, we go to Casita del Sabor, where I have my favorite casado so far, with garlic-fried tilapia. I think it’s actually the best fish I’ve ever had in my entire life. I miss it already.

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I’ve actually only done an Airbnb Experience once—the time Airbnb sent me to Paris for one—but this was worth every penny. I liked that the money was still going to a local business, but we also got to experience some things that are a little off the map.

We drive the rest of the way to our final destination, Manuel Antonio, and collapse into a deep sleep.

day 8: manuel antonio

Sunrise in Manuel Antonio

We wake up early, prepared to go to the national park, but it’s hot and apparently the park opens at 7 am, so we are already late at 9 am. We resolve to go even earlier tomorrow instead. So, with our day completely free, we drive down to Playa Beisanz, a little beach hidden away at the end of a little jungle trail.

It’s a gorgeous day, and the beach is stunning. It’s not too crowded because it’s still early, so it’s nice and quiet.

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This is the Costa Rica I’ve seen in postcards and travel ads and stock photos. The water is an impossibly brilliant shade of cerulean, fading into turquoise as it washes over the soft white sand, framed by cottony clouds floating lazily overhead. There are some people relaxing on towels like us, and some people kayaking around. It’s already extremely bright out and the sun is beating down hard, so we take refuge in the shade of a cluster of large black rocks.

I see tiny crabs picking food off the rocks behind us; we can hear the faint scraping of their tiny claws. These ‎crabs have no idea where they are. But they are here, in this perfect slice of tranquility, on the shores of one of the most beautiful beaches I've ever seen. I read something from Girls’ Night In called “How to Plan a Trip That's Relaxing, Not Overwhelming,” and one of their tips was to “treat down-time like it’s an attraction worth seeing,” which I thought was great advice. Rekha and I are both very Type A people, obsessive to a fault, but I think when we travel together we recognize the importance of relaxation, because we’ll quickly burn each other out if we’re running on full all the time.

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I read a little more of Between the World and Me. I love the way Ta-Nehisi Coates writes. Something about the way he arranges words on a page is incredibly artful; his sentences read almost like music. I was only introduced to him when he was writing for The Atlantic, but apparently he’s been a prolific writer about race and culture for years, and it was interesting to know where he came from—the hood of Baltimore. He talks a lot about cultural legacy and about his ancient ancestors back in Africa, whose perceptions of power and their place in the world shaped the development of African-American communities under colonial rule. He inspires me to learn about my own ancestors, not just the faraway ones in China, but the ones who were born here and made lives for themselves here. It occurs to me I don’t know much about my family history. But more on that later.

It’s early afternoon now, and I am still terrified of the sun and getting skin cancer, but this is Costa Rica and sometimes you just have to say “f*ck it,” so I strip down to a bathing suit and head into the water.

From the moment I step into the ocean, I feel so instantly peaceful it’s almost ridiculous. Letting the warm, silky water envelop me completely feels like a soothing dream, and the sand is so fine it feels like powdered sugar under my feet. Schools of silvery fish dart around in the shallow parts, sometimes jumping up in a synchronized arc above the shimmering water. Rekha notes that it’s funny because we’re literally swimming in the same ocean that’s just five minutes from our homes in San Diego. It really puts things into perspective when you think about it that way.

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We spend an hour just lounging around in the water, floating with our faces toward the sun. It really is a perfect day.

As we’re getting out of the water, we see a guy preparing jet skis, and we spontaneously decide to ask him how much it costs to rent one, as neither of us have ever tried it. I know I’d regret it if I didn’t. He flashes us a smile and tells us he can give us a discount if we’re willing to take it right now. So we do.

We take the jet skis out into the deeper water, speeding circles around each other, feeling the wind whip through our hair and the sun warm our shoulders. It’s the most fun thing I’ve done in a really long time, and something I can cross off my bucket list. I grip the ignition and watch it climb to 25, 20, 33 miles per hour, watching bits of sunlight sparkle like diamonds in the water, feeling the bottom of the jet ski skim over the waves, shrieking like a child every time I catch a little bit of air. I honestly have never felt happier than when I am on this jet ski, racing through the waves in the beautiful Costa Rican water, and I can’t stop smiling the whole time.

With sun-drenched skin and salt-streaked hair, we happily leave the beach, our hearts soaring.

We check into our hotel, The Falls Resort at Manuel Antonio, which is the nicest one yet. It’s right on the side of the road, with an entrance so unassuming we almost miss it, but inside it’s beautiful, with a lush courtyard and a tiki bar perched over a jewel-blue pool. As soon as we check in, we’re immediately handed ice-cold glasses of what tastes like watermelon juice.

We see a bunch of iguanas casually sunbathing on the paths; the woman showing us to our room has to stomp around to make them scatter so we can get our luggage around them. Two of them disappear into a hole in the wall decorated with a smiley-face sun and the named “Robert” in block letters painted over it. We’re dying over the fact that someone named one of the iguanas “Robert,” when a voice interrupts us.

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“Robert died; that’s Kevin,” says a woman sunbathing by the pool with a cocktail in hand, gesturing to the hole in the wall. This only makes us laugh harder.

We eat a very late lunch (dinner?) at El Avion, a restaurant and bar inside of an old C-123 plane that was apparently involved in the Iran-Contra affair back in the 1980s (it’s got a really interesting history). It overlooks the coastline and the views are spectacular.

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The food is amazing. I order a trio of sliders—beef and bacon, fried shrimp, and pulled pork, and we revel in the fresh air, the abundance of greenery, and the endless blue coastline. We finally get to shower after a long day spent outside, and we settle in for another early night—tomorrow, we’re waking up early to go to the national park.

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day 9: manuel antonio

It seems that the path to Parque Nacional Manuel Antonio is paved with scams.

The line to get in is already a mile long, and it’s only 7:15 in the morning. We’d woken up at 5:30 am, eaten a quick breakfast at the hotel 6 am, and immediately drove the short distance to the national park. But everywhere we go, someone is running some kind of con.

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Yesterday, when we’d tried to come here, we were driving down the road and a man stepped in front of our car, motioning to us to pull over. There was a group of people gathered on the side of the road, staring up at into the tree, so we’d stopped. He told us there was a sloth in the tree, and suggested we park our car to see it, and buy national park tickets from him—a scam, because you can’t buy national park tickets from anywhere except the national park. But we thought maybe we’d park there and walk to the entrance of the national park. The man told us it was fine, but it would cost us $10 for parking. We’d quickly Googled, and many people had said that these men simply take your money and leave your car alone unsupervised, another scam. And that’s how we’d ended up at Playa Beisanz yesterday.

Today, we’d headed past the men running the sloth scam, this time driving right up to the the entrance of the national park. Along the way, multiple mean wearing orange vests with whistles try to direct us to their “parking lots,” really just empty lots that they don’t actually own but collect parking fees on. We wave them off and they simply leave us alone. Instead, we go to El Faro, the hotel closest to the entrance that the woman at our hotel’s reception mentioned, and park our car there. A man wearing a shirt with a “Manuel Antonio National Park Official Guide” patch on it approaches us. He asks us if we’re going to the national park. Suspecting a scam, we tell him no, we’re just checking into our hotel. He asks us if we have a wristband, and we say no. He finally leaves and we wait a little bit before leaving the car to stand in line. While we’re waiting, we see the same guy trying to solicit other people to pay him for a “private tour.” It’s not just him, either—they’re everywhere. Men in khaki shirts herding people toward a small storefront with an official-looking banner and the national park logo, where other men are selling fake tickets and “official tours” to poor tourists enticed by the promise of skipping the long line. These scammers are surprisingly bold. A police car drives past but no one does anything, which is disappointing; they’re perpetuating a terrible tourism culture and just allowing their visitors to be victimized by these men. It’s stupid, and it doesn’t make us want to come back knowing that we’re easy prey as non-Latinas and non-Spanish-speakers. The whole thing is irritating, and it’s not even 9 am yet.

I am sunburnt from our jet ski excursion yesterday. I’ve literally forgotten what it’s like to be sunburnt, as I’ve spent the last seven years of my life actively avoiding the sun. It’s oppressively hot. We buy our (real!) tickets from a building next to the national park, which again is right across from a booth of scammers, and no one is doing anything.

The park is beautiful, surrounded by beaches. The first thing we do is head down the nearest fork toward the water, to escape the heat that’s already creeping up on us. Since we’re early, there’s almost no one here and the beach is quiet; you can hear the quiet murmuring of the tide spilling onto the sand. The water is so perfectly blue, unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and the park is leafy and green. I’m reminded again of Hawaii. It’s incredibly surreal.

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We take our time along the path, which runs along the water so we can always see the flashes of blue peeking through the trees. The lush coastline stretches out in front of us, blooming a deep, wild green. This is peak nature.

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There are lots of iguanas basking in the sun, and then we reach a grove of trees and see monkeys! These are the first monkeys we’ve seen in Costa Rica, and we’re delighted to see that they’re white-faced capuchins—the same breed as Marcel from Friends. These little guys are so cute and curious; I imagine they’re just as fascinated by us as we are by them. Apparently, as we learned from overhearing a tour guide earlier, monkeys eat everything—leaves, frogs, lizards, even pure sugar, if they can get into your house, and because of their fairly balanced omnivorous diet, bananas are actually very not good for them. There’s a bunch of them in the trees, chattering excitedly and grooming each other, but a couple hop down to where we are and sit on the trail posts next to us, just observing. It’s so strange that they can sit and use their hands like us, but then run along the ropes of the trail markers like cats. Their faces also look oddly human; they’re so expressive, it’s hilarious and adorable. I really want to know what goes on in their heads all day.

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We take the Punta Catedral trail, which leads up to a cliff overlooking the water. Another perfect day. The thing I love about the ocean is that you can be any place in the world and it’ll look more or less the same. That same comforting shade of blue that feels deep and warm like summer, the same rippling smoothness that stretches as far as the eye can see, the haziness of the horizon alluding to infinity.

From the cliff, this ocean, with its faraway rocks, reminds me of Greece or Big Sur, and there’s something very comforting about that. It’s like Rekha said—it’s the same ocean as the one we see in San Diego. And I think that’s why I love it, the familiarity. It feels like home.

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We go to Mar Luna for dinner. It’s a quiet, intimate place with excellent seafood and gorgeous view of the water. We eat dinner while watching the glowing red sun slip below the water, illuminating the whole sky, the colors shifting from pale blue to soft mauve and vivid orange. The sunsets here rival Isla Vista’s.

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We finish Love, Death, and Robots (after careful consideration, I recommend the episodes “Zima Blue,” “Good Hunting,” “Alternate Histories,” “The Witness,” “Lucky 13,” “Ice Age,” and “When The Yogurt Took Over”), and sleep early.

day 10: manuel antonio

I wake up at 6:45 am without an alarm, because I suppose this is who I am now. I don't feel as accomplished as I should, even though this is earlier than I wake up for work. I honestly don’t think I will ever be a person who wakes up at 5 am to exercise and make a smoothie bowl before work; it’s just not my chronotype and it doesn’t make me any happier even if I am marginally more productive. But there is something to be said about sitting on a hostel rooftop at 7 am, overlooking the soft blue Pacific Ocean, feeling the warm tropical breeze on your skin, listening to soothing guitar music layered with the eager chirping of birds, and inhaling the scent of pancakes wafting up from the bakery across the street. Most of the people in the hostel are asleep, and it’s surprisingly peaceful. If all Mondays were like this, I don’t think I would mind them quite as much.

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Rekha left early this morning, so now it’s just me. My plan is to catch up on some work at a leisurely pace, to kind of mentally ease back into it. I was originally going to go back to the beach, but the view from the rooftop is just as nice, and it’s shaded. The simple pleasure of just sitting somewhere with a view of the ocean and breathing in clean, fresh air is something I miss living in New York, and it’s something I always look forward to when I go home.

I take a break to walk across the street to eat lunch at El Avion, fish tacos with mango salsa this time. They’re incredible. Probably the best fish tacos I’ve ever had. The fish is fresh and perfectly cooked and I could eat the mango salsa with a spoon.

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A restaurant made from the body of an old airplane overlooking the beautiful Costa Rican coastline, on a picture-perfect day, feels like the perfect place to spend a couple of hours, so after I eat, I finally finish Between the World and Me and slowly sip a pineapple smoothie, feeling the sun warm my skin, gloriously aware that I could be on a travel brochure for a tropical vacation right now. One passage in particular stands out: a description of his thoughts while traveling alone for the first time, to Paris.

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The next day I got up early and walked through the city. I visited the Musée Rodin. I stopped in a bistro, and with all the fear of a boy approaching a beautiful girl at a party, I ordered two beers and then a burger. I walked to Le Jardin du Luxembourg. It was about four o’clock in the afternoon. I took a seat. The garden was bursting with people, again in all their alien ways. At that moment a strange loneliness took hold. Perhaps it was that I had never sat in a public garden before, had not even known it to be something that I’d want to do. And all around me there were people who did this regularly.

It occurred to me that I really was in someone else’s country and yet, in some necessary way, I was outside of their country. In America I was part of an equation—even if it wasn’t a part I relished. I was the one the police stopped on Twenty-third Street in the middle of a workday. I was the one driven to The Mecca. I was not just a father but the father of a black boy. I was not just a spouse but the husband of a black woman, a freighted symbol of black love. But sitting in that garden, for the first time I was an alien, I was a sailor—landless and disconnected. And I was sorry that I had never felt this particular loneliness before—that I had never felt myself so far outside of someone else’s dream.

I think that’s one of the best parts of travel—that loneliness. I’ve tried explaining this to people before, that I like traveling alone or at the very least, spending time alone, but I think a lot of people think of loneliness as something sad. And it can be, sometimes, but this particular kind of loneliness doesn’t feel that way. It’s not the same loneliness you feel after tragedy or in the midst of a depression episode; it’s one that you become acutely aware of when you’re pushed outside of your element. It’s the strange feeling of being a spectator of everyday life, that everyone around you is simply living as if it’s an ordinary day, but to you it’s extraordinary. It’s the realization that your identity and your story are unknown to everyone around you, and that life goes on without you and you are just one tiny person in a sea of others. I kind of like that, because it reminds us of the humanity of other people, and it’s nice to feel small sometimes. I imagine it’s particularly refreshing if you’re a black man, who is so used to your existence being used as a symbol in other peoples’ wars. But I think there’s something nice about knowing that everyone around you has their own story, their own memories, their own thoughts and feelings, and everyone feels a bit lonely sometimes. I think that’s why I never find New York intimidating or walking around alone sad. It’s just part of being a person in a big city. And that’s a pretty poetic.

For dinner, I walk down the road to Emilio’s Café. It appears to be a tourist hotspot, and it’s popping; the restaurant is filled with the sounds of people laughing, dishes clattering around in the kitchen, and the coffee-scented sigh of the espresso machine in the bakery in the corner. I like people-watching in these situations; I always try to guess peoples’ stories. An Italian couple sharing a plate of salmon on their 27th anniversary. A tour group of high school kids. A family reunion on holiday.

A group of four guys next to me asks me where I’m from, and I reply New York. I never know how to answer this question, because I’ve lived in New York long enough to feel like a New Yorker (my second anniversary is in July...time has absolutely flown), but I still consider myself a Californian at heart. I think sometimes saying “California” stirs a kind of recognition—it explains my accent and the fact that I wear flip flops pretty much everywhere—but people know New York; they always have a story of a vacation they once took there or a wistful aspiration to visit someday. It has a special place in everyone’s heart, even as an idealistic vision of a faraway metropolis. One of the guys tells me his name, which I forget immediately after he says it, and mentions that he’s from Staten Island.

“I’ve never been to Staten Island,” I admit, and he laughs and tells me that, “No one who lives in New York ever has a reason to go to Staten Island.”

I have octopus served very simply with salt, pepper, paprika, and lemon juice over potatoes. It’s delicious. I haven’t had octopus since I was a kid, but the fact that you can see the ocean from almost every point in Manuel Antonio merits ordering some kind of seafood. Dessert is a slice of passionfruit pie, which is equally delicious and very, very rich.

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As I’m paying my bill, the waiter slips me a shot of something yellow. “This is for you, amiga,” he says, smiling warmly. I don’t really drink anymore, but when in Costa Rica [insert Drake meme]. It’s some kind of citrus liquor, and I feel the warmth of it buzz through my veins on my walk home.

day 11: san jose

It’s my last day in Costa Rica—I drive our trusty SUV all the way from Manuel Antonio back to San Jose for my flight. It takes three and a half hours, which is a bit stressful because Blackberry Maps doesn’t operate in Costa Rica and Google Maps is quite limited. It’s like navigating to Soda La Amistad x 100, because this time I’m driving on highways and through tollbooths and around mountains. I’m very nervous.

Luckily, I get to the airport without too many incidents—there are a couple of stressful parts like when I accidentally exit a roundabout too early, when part of the mountain road is closed for construction, and when I exit a tollbooth at the city center in San Jose and there are ten lanes of traffic merging into one. But I am alive, I am early for my flight, and I am starving. I grab a burger (from Smashburger, of all places), sit down in the terminal, and wait.

It’s been a wild ten days. I feel like a different person than I was when I first got here. I now feel confident driving anywhere, for one thing. I think I could actually, realistically pick up Spanish again, with some help and some dedication to studying. And all in all, I’m glad I came here for my first time in Central America. I’ve loved the people and the hospitality here; everyone we met was so nice and so knowledgeable about their country. It’s inspired me to learn a little bit more about New York’s history, so that I can give people the same kind of experience when they visit here. I take a bit to admire the beauty of where I am, and that despite everything, it was a really great trip. I am so happy to be here.

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