A machete. Two brand new pillows. A coffee pot. A freezer full of ice. All that finger-wagging and nay-saying from fellow ex-pats about befriending the Tico folk; we still insisted on leaving behind our most precious commodities for local friends “Rasta” Wilson, his wife, and their baby boy. It was our way of rebelling against authority. Peaceful protest against the slow but sure “civilization” occurring in what was once a relatively unknown, undisturbed slice of Central American coastal paradise.
Plus, we didn’t want Gary to get ahold of them. An aged hippie from somewhere in… Kentucky, I think?… pretending to assimilate to native ways. Yet, there was always something about him that seemed so aggressively, offensively American.
Not that we weren’t giving off the same yuppie vibe. Within days of our arrival on Costa Rican soil, I was already bemoaning the flat, dorm-quality pillows, the lack of ice trays, the wild pizotes busting through our skylights. Nothing like a break-in from a foreign version of an American raccoon to make you feel secure in your dwelling. Our rental exhibited a definite animal motif once their tiny muddy footprints decorated nearly the entire ceiling.
Overnight, we’d ventured from the comfort of usable internet (and running water) to a place where the only reliable thing was the gang of lizards that raced across the tin roof every afternoon at 2:45pm on the dot. How I would come to miss that sound. Along with all the sounds of the jungle beyond (and oftentimes, inside) our doorstep. The howler monkeys above, the renegade chickens below — escaping from the neighbor’s mud floor lean-to.
At that time, our remote seaside locale was mostly untamed. Experiencing life outside of our usual cultural constructs turned my kids absolutely feral. Clothes, utensils, toilets — everything was optional. The one “playground” in town was really just a pile of wood and nails. Sticks became toys. Risk was everywhere. This was childhood in its most unadulterated form. One small step from Lord of the Flies, a world away from someone calling CPS because you neglected to sunscreen.
It was (partly) why we’d sold all that we owned to travel for a year — freedom, surprises, discomfort, adjustment, readjustment. Proof of life after a mind-numbing three years revolving around nap schedules and midnight feedings.
We made it exactly six months. Until:
“Muerta? Like…” I made the universal hand signal for “dead,” dragging my thumb across my throat.
“Si, muerta,” Salvador nodded and shrugged.
“Um, gracias. Gracias.” It was the only word I could think of and, for the 500th time since we’d arrived, I regretted choosing French over Spanish in high school. Now, I couldn’t even get the full story from our neighbor as to why our beloved landlady, Mama June, had passed away unexpectedly.
Just days before, she’d been every bit her spry self, roaring around the playa on her beat-up red quad in a pair of knee-length, waist-high denim shorts and a flowered tank top, her silver buzz cut gleaming in the sunlight.
And with that began our rapid deterioration and complete loss of resolve. Mama June served as our map to this wild new world. In her absence, a string of faux-pas landed our car in a 4-foot river and our savings account in danger of entering the red.
On July 10, 2018, we again packed up every belonging we had to our name and boarded a plane for Texas. Our only souvenirs: a three-year-old with a mild skin infection and a Labrador whose thick coat had developed a benign fungus that smelled like stinky cheese.
Home. Finally. Except… not home. Blinding light and blistering heat reflect off an endless current of multi-level highways out my car window; tributaries draw us toward densely populated urban ocean that now feels more foreign, somehow, than the rainforest from which we emerged.
Here, wildlife in its place — that is, the space allowed for it. Ponds and lakes manufactured, fabricated to suit weekend whims. A more “civilized” order to things. My eyes swim at the sight of the vast and sudden exhibition of modern convenience. My brain spins like a top. I can get Amazon. I can get Netflix. I can get authentic pho.
All the things I missed. The things I “needed.” In this moment, they all feel so… excessive. Insane, even. My mental faculties rush to keep up with a life on which I’d hit “pause” several months ago. Primitive. Progress. I’m not sure, anymore, where is which — or which is where.
The roar of six-lane traffic replaces the howling of monkeys and the steady thrum of jungle insects. The click of a right-hand signal, a red light, a left turn onto the main thoroughfare. 3,000 pounds of steel carrying us, once again, into unfamiliar terrain: a month or two of regrouping (that would become a full six months) at my parents’ house.
For all of the new surprises and discomforts that await, I know this: there will most certainly be good pillows, plenty of coffee, and instantly available ice.