December 15, 2015 § Leave a comment
Costa Rica was hot. And beautiful, humid and brash and bright. The sticky-sweet heat fell like a blanket on my shoulders every time I walked outside. But it wouldn’t have been the same without it. The ocean water, green and warmed through with sunlight, would not have been nearly as refreshing without the humid air. And the icy margaritas definitely wouldn’t have been as delicious.
A few weeks ago, Channing and I spent 5 days down in Costa Rica visiting our friend Jess. The heat hit us for the first time when we stepped out of the airport, but it barely registered because Jess was waiting for us already, grinning and waving from across the sidewalk. Channing and I were practically giddy with excitement (and a little vodka & club from the flight) as we ran over and hugged her. We couldn’t stop smiling and talking. It was hard to believe we were actually, really here in Costa Rica, after hearing Jess tell us so much about it. She had hired a local man, Diego, to pick us up and drive us around for the day. Diego didn’t speak any English, but with Jess translating, he was still a great tour guide, showing us the palm tree forest where he works, and buying us Imperials, the official cerveza of Costa Rica. The drive from the San Jose airport to Manuel Antonio- the little town where Jess lives- was just over two hours, and I loved every minute of it. I’m sure Channing would have too, but she slept most of the way. She managed to wake up for a few minutes when we stopped at the Crocodile Bridge, though. The muddy brown waters flowed placidly underneath the bridge, and the enormous crocodiles slept placidly through our excited photoshoot.
The Costa Rican mountains are sharp and jagged, rising in steep folds from the tangled jungle below. The highway wound up and down through them and then flattened out along the coastline to give us our first glimpse of the shining Pacific Ocean. We stopped briefly at a stand of trees overlooking the Pacific, where scarlet macaws flashed their blue and yellow wingtips at us as they settled onto the branches.
The sun was setting by the time we arrived at Jess’ apartment, and we quickly decided to catch the bus down to the beach for the rest of twilight. We dropped our suitcases in the living room, threw on our bikinis and flip-flops, and headed back out to the bus stop. I thought we were about to run off the road at least half a dozen times as the bus lumbered its way down the twisting mountainside, but the driver remained stoically indifferent, even yawning as he wrenched the wheel around in one direction and then another. After a few more hair-raising curves, it finally deposited us on the side of the main street running past Manuel Antonio’s beach. I stepped off the bus and onto the sand. Palm trees rustled over my head and the sound of the ocean boomed hollowly a few yards away.
“We’re here!!” Channing, Jess, and I immediately ran down to where the water came foaming up over the soft, dark sand. The spray from the crashing waves was warm as bathwater and tasted of salt and fresh wind. I couldn’t stop smiling at my friends. The purple and gray clouds on the western horizon were shot through with pink sunset remnants, the ocean washed all our weariness away, and we laughed in joy.
Over the next four days, I realized that Costa Rica was special. Not just for the exotic and lush jungle landscape- although that was astonishing in its loveliness- or in the friendliness of the people, but in some indefinable way I spent hours trying to pin down. The food was fresh and delicious, filled with just enough different flavors and ingredients to make a meal surprising.
We ate at Barba Roja on Saturday night, where I had albacore tuna seared medium-rare with some sort of creamy orange sauce, smooth mashed potatoes, and coconut curry kale that nearly made me (me!) a vegetable convert.
Emilio’s Cafe was our breakfast spot for two out of the three days, and the only reason we didn’t go on Tuesday was because it was closed. I sipped a smooth, rich cappuccino at Emilio’s, looking out over the ocean view, spearing chunks of fresh papaya and banana to go with my croissant. There were eggs, rice and beans, and fried sweet plantains that tasted like candy. On our last night, Jess cooked us a fantastic pad thai, full of chicken and veggies. I would like to say I helped, but really all I did was crush the peanuts and drink white wine.
We took the bus to the beach every day, usually arriving around 10 AM and grabbing some chairs by Marco’s surf school. The sun’s heat was fierce, tropical and heavy, but the ocean… oh, the ocean more than made up for it. Channing and I slathered each other in SPF 70 diligently and yet I still burned red in streaks and spots. She developed a lovely tan, much to my envy. In the hot, hot afternoons, we would cross the street and get margaritas at Las Gemelas, where the bartender John would mix mine extra strong and gently tug my blonde hair from across the bar. He told me stories about his life and asked me to marry him on my second night there. My hair stayed curly the entire time I was in Costa Rica, and lightened with sun so it was even more blonde than usual. Three different men proposed to me during my stay in Manuel Antonio. I blame the sun streaks in my hair, and my big blue eyes. Las Gemelas was one of those places, you know what I mean? Where you instantly feel like yourself, only a happier, lighter you. Maybe it was the margaritas. I don’t think so, though. John played thumping Latin American music on his laptop behind the bar and I couldn’t keep my feet from dancing every time I went in there. The crowd was friendly, always talking and laughing in the heat and rhythm of Spanish, and I realized even more what it means to be an extrovert: how I felt energized and joyful, just from being surrounded by the chatter and music and people, and the constant boom and fizz of the breaking waves, always, right across the street.
On the first day at the beach, I got Channing to put down her book and come out to play in the waves with me. We waded out past the breakers, deep enough that the rolling waves only collapsed on us every now and then. When a huge wave crested right in front of us, she screamed, “AHHHH WHAT DO I DO!?” and I promptly -and unhelpfully- screamed back, “JUST DIVE UNDER!!!” and did so. I popped back up out of the wave, laughing so hard I almost swallowed saltwater and saw that she had survived the pounding surf. This was only the beginning of Channing’s dangerous encounters with the ocean that day, though, because later we went on the banana boat. The banana boat is basically nothing more than a giant inflated tube which you straddle, while a jetski pulls you around the ocean. It’s fun and fast and hilarious, especially when the guy driving the jetski decides to cut a sharp turn and you, Jess, and Channing all go flying off the tube and into the water. Channing basically landed on my head in the water when this happened, and my hard skull bruised her hip. Sorry, Channing. She got me back later that night though, when we were sitting inside Las Gemelas watching a tropical downpour outside. Some of the guys were trying to teach me how to roll my r’s, which is apparently a necessary skill for speaking Spanish well enough that the locals don’t dissolve into laughter when you attempt it. I couldn’t do it, though and in despair, I turned to Channing, sitting next to me on another bar stool. “Chan, do YOU know how to roll your r’s!?” “Rose,” she grinned, because she knows me well, “the only thing I’m rolling right now are my eyes. At you.” In my defense, I was on vacation. In a tropical paradise. With margaritas. And salsa music.
On the second day at the beach, Jess’ friend Alexandra joined us and we drank coconut water out of coconut shells and Channing tried to convince me to ride a horse on the beach in my navy blue one-piece bathing suit. I politely declined. We walked down to the souvenir stalls on the side street and bought pretty sarongs and seashell earrings. Channing wanted to buy a machete for her boyfriend, but we weren’t quite sure how to get it through Customs in a carry-on.
Jess showed us the monkey wires installed overhead, so that the little titi monkeys have somewhere to run other than the power lines. The tropical rain began hissing down as we sat at Las Gemelas, and I couldn’t stop staring at the ocean through the gray evening light. “Jess… can I go run out into the ocean?” I didn’t want to seem like a weirdo, but Jess just laughed at me. “Do whatever you want, Rose.” So I grabbed Channing and we ran across the street and down through the soft sand. The rain fell in chill slanting sheets upon our shoulders, giving me goosebumps on my arms and neck as we waded into the warm surf. Jess got an action shot of us during the storm:
We ate dinner that night at the bar at Hotel Byblos, where the television was showing the Texans/Bengals Monday Night Football game and there was a foosball table tucked into the corner. It felt like the Valley, until we ordered shrimp and rice and beans instead of hot wings.
On the third day at the beach, Jess’ 3 year-old daughter Alana decided it would be fun to dribble sand all over me and Channing. She pulled us down to the water’s edge and laughed the whole time she plopped handfuls of the soft gray sand on us. The sand in Costa Rica has a dark tint to it, and I was pretty sure that was due to volcanic rock. I asked Jess and Marco, who both confirmed that I was correct in my geological assumptions, which was almost as enjoyable as being proposed to. Alana called the sand “poop” the entire time she was covering us in it. After I jumped into the waves to wash the sand off, Maykoll, one of Marco’s friends, took me out into the ocean on a paddleboard. Once we swam past the breaking waves, he had me sit on the front of the long board and he jumped up and paddled us all the way out into the middle of the ocean. This was one of my favorite moments of the whole trip. The sun was hot on my back, but the water washed cool and sweet across the board. The green waves sparkled in the sunlight, throwing glints of white like diamonds off their windswept tops. We paddled all the way out past the twin rocks that Las Gemelas is named for, and we dangled our legs into the water, floating in the center of the horizon with nothing but emerald green ocean and sapphire sky stretching out before us. I kept going back and forth in my mind the whole trip, on what color Costa Rica was: vibrant hues in the sun, dark and rich during the rains, neon at night, but there in the middle of the Pacific ocean, all I could see were jewels.
Maybe that’s it, maybe that’s why I couldn’t quite pin down what it was about Costa Rica. Because it kept changing on me: it was flickering green shadows in the jungle inside Manuel Antonio National Park, it was white hot sunlight on the speckled beach, it was darkened, drenched hair and neon signs while the wild rainstorms pounded at night. The whole country buzzed and murmured and sang around me in a language I could not understand. I stood in the middle, surrounded by life in every color, and I drank it in with the sun and the salt and the water.