Stumbling Upon a Home

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Going into the meditation course, I knew I would have a few days to kill before Casey got here, so I started to think about what to do after the retreat. Skimming through Lonely Planet, I noticed that nearby the Vipassana place, which was in Monte la Cruz, Perez Zeledon, there was Mt. Chirripo, the highest mountain in Central America. On a good day you can see both the Pacific and Caribbean coasts from the summit. It’s a recommended 3 or 4 day hike, though it’s possible to do it in 2 if you haul ass and don’t take a lot of time to smell the native flowers. It’s supposed to be pretty incredible, and the bonus was that the home base for starting the hike is in San Gerardo de Rivas, the closest town to the farm Casey and I were going to volunteer upon her arrival. So that all seemed pretty perfect, especially as I figured that after ten days of sitting still in meditation I would not only be itching for some exercise but also have the ideal mindset to go into a strenuous hike. 

Well, I assumed wrong. Ten days of sitting still was a hell of a lot more work than I’d anticipated, and I felt more inclined to relax after the course. I was undecided until about an hour before we left the retreat center as to what I was going to do. On the one hand, a few of the friends I’d met had offered me a ride to the little beach town of Dominical, about 40 minutes from Monte la Cruz. It was a town that a guy in San Isidro had recommended to me as an ideal beach town that wasn’t too remote, but also not as touristy as some of the other beaches on the Pacific Coast. I’d been leaning towards this option when one of the other girls at the retreat, Cassy, mentioned that she was about to go hike Chirripo. As she was awesome and I’d not been inclined to hike alone anyway, I started to think maybe it was a good idea to go do the hike with her. She was going to take a day or two to chill out before the hike, so I ended up catching the ride to Dominical with my friends Aphrodite, Marco, Clay, and several others (there were 8 of us and all our baggage in a truck), and planning to meet Cassy afterwards to hike.

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Clay, Marco, and Aphrodite right before we left the meditation center.

And once again, the Chirripo plan just didn’t resonate with what I really wanted. Pretty much as soon as our clown car rolled into the lazy surf town of Dominical, I knew I wanted to stay for a while. With one main dirt road lined with a handful of restaurants, shops, bars, and adventure/surf tour places, it seemed to have all I would need to relax, get into some surfing, and settle into a laidback lifestyle for a few days.

 

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I was right. 

It was February 3 when I arrived, and I am writing this now on February 23, from a prime seat overlooking the ocean at Piramys,

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the same hostel I checked into two and a half weeks ago. I love this place.

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It’s easy to get stuck here.

 

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Actually, I think down here it’s easy to get stuck anywhere you start to feel comfortable, as I did in Bocas del Toro for a bit. I haven’t visited enough little beach towns to do a proper comparison, but I will say that Dominical is my favorite surf town so far; there is a palpable positive energy here. It’s very chill and slow-paced, but alive and rife with friendly people, though not so many that it feels overcrowded or super-touristy. Don’t get me wrong, there are a lot of tourists and expats here, but it seems to be balanced nicely with a presence of local people, who I’ve found are extremely welcoming and likely part of the reason why expats have been integrated so nicely into the local scene.

In the few weeks I’ve been here I’ve gotten to meet so many amazing people, both local and traveling, and am already starting to feel part of the community.

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First friends I made here: Eben, Anna, and Ryan. Eben gave me my first couple surf lessons, and then introduced me to some of his friends. Basically the way I started meeting some locals and expats, which has been really nice. Although I’m enjoying meeting transient folks, it’s nice to have some friends that live here for some stability.

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Ryan, Anna, and Eben, on our way to Dominicalito, a small fishing village next to Dominical, to find ourselves a boat ride with some of Eben’s friends.

It’s been really beautiful to witness the openness of most people living here. Even in such small interactions as grocery shopping or going to the bank, I’ve experienced almost nothing but genuine kindness. Walking down the street, people are generally keen to make eye contact and greet each other with a “Pura Vida”. I can honestly say that I’ve not experienced a single catcall or threatening interaction while I’ve been here, only an authentically friendly greeting, which is really comforting. So that’s definitely a big part of the draw for me, especially as the longer I’m here the more these passing interactions are with familiar faces and friends.

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Anna and I

One thing that has come up for me so far on this trip is the desire to find a balance between exploring everything Costa Rica has to offer, and settling in a place long enough to really get a feel for the lifestyle. I’ve so far been inclined towards the latter, and I’m pretty happy with that choice. It’s kind of happened a bit by chance, as much as it’s been a conscious decision.

When I see this in my front yard every evening, I feel very lucky to have ended up here:

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Last week, Casey arrived in Dominical and we spent a couple days before heading out to the farm to volunteer for a month. Even as we were leaving, neither one of us was feeling ready to go, but I did have a bit of excitement about getting to the farm, hanging with some Ticas (local women) and their children, and learning about farming and sustainable living practices. We hitched a ride from Dominical to San Isidro, a practice that maybe deserves its own blog post soon (don’t worry mom, it’s very common here and I don’t do it alone).

We’d had a late night prior to our departure, and had gotten used to not carrying our bags around, so this day of traveling was a bit rough, especially as Casey’s ankle was pretty messed up from an injury at home compounded by the heat, the walking with 50 lbs, and bug bites. I realized that I am carrying around more than half of my body weight between my big pack and my smaller front pack. Ugh. So anyway, we got to San Isidro, after a bit of wandering found our farm host, put our bags down for a minute, and went to the local market. Thursdays and Fridays in San Isidro is the Feria, a huge market with lots of produce and other home grown goods, many of which are organic. We even found the best kombucha I’ve ever had, and I don’t even usually like the stuff.

The reprieve from the weight didn’t last long, and we slung our baggage back onto our weary shoulders and trudged on to the next stop, a meeting for Ticas about services for local women. Our host hadn’t been in a while, so she wanted to make an appearance and show Casey and I a bit about the kind of work she was doing. The meeting was about an hour presentation on local social services, and a bit of discussion between the attendants, about 20 women from the area. It was a nice opportunity to practice listening to Spanish; I understood the gist of it, and maybe 50% of what was actually being said.

Let me take a brief moment here to vent about my frustration with Spanish. While I find my speaking skills are consistently improving, my ability to understand continues to lag behind. This is quite frustrating, as I can’t figure out exactly why this happens. I know it’s a combination of trouble understanding some people’s accents, when people talk very fast, when large groups of people are talking in Spanish, and not knowing a whole lot of slang yet. Though I have learned the following slang words:

Pachuco = slang

Hasta la picha/Echo picha = I’m fucked up

Mae = dude

Tuanis = Cool or great – a synonym for Pura Vida

Pura Vida = The “official” motto of Costa Rica – literally means pure life, but used as a response to how are you? as a general greeting, and pretty much any time for anything that is good

Acachete = Again, means cool

Pinche = stingy

Mota = marijuana 

I think part of the issue is that I need to set aside some vocab study time each day in addition to just trying to converse with people. And I think I need to just put myself in as many situations as possible where there is lots of Spanish being spoken, and not be afraid to ask questions. I also know that I need to be willing to feel lost, frustrated, and out of the loop, while maintaining the faith that if I just keep listening, it will one day click for me. My one on one conversations generally go fine, but I’m finding myself wanting really badly to be engaged in a group conversation without feeling like a bonehead. Especially the more I make friends with locals, it would be nice to be able to hang out with a bunch of them without them having to talk in English or translate so many words for me. But I know it’s a process and fluency is not that far out of reach. At least that’s what I’m going to keep telling myself…

So, anyway, back to the story. By the way, I am not naming our farm host to protect her as I am about to talk some shit and she is a very sweet lady. I will say, however, please ask lots of questions and research any farms on which you may want to volunteer, even those on reputable websites, as they are often not what they say they are. Ok, so after the meeting I asked our farm host how many Ticas were living on her farm, to which she responded “none”. Now before I go any further, I want to explain what we were told was going to be happening at the farm. We were told that the farm had a bunch of crops including fruits, veggies, coffee, and sugar; baked their own bread; had solar panels, composting toilets, and could teach us about sustainable living; and had a social work component of providing housing and work for single Tica mothers. The reality: our 60ish year old female host was the only one up there with a hut she’d built herself, an outhouse, one broken solar panel, and the intention to build a bread oven out of sand.  The farm was completely overgrown and poorly maintained, with the only edible crops being a shit ton of bananas. There were a lot of overgrown coffee plants, and a little bit of harvestable coffee, for which she had a pretty shoddy processing system and a whole lot of disdain. Not only were there no Ticas living there, she told us that she’d been trying to get them up there for years, and they were ladies from the city so really didn’t want to live there (I wonder why!)

Now, I just want to say that this woman was super nice and well-intentioned, but completely misled us. Everything she said was happening was all future plans, and the fact that there was no food to eat meant it would be more expensive than we’d planned on. It wasn’t all bad; we were up in the mountains in a beautiful area, and our little sleep spot was kind of cool.

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We only stayed one night and I have to say it was awesome to have to use blankets at night, as near the beach it’s damn hot. But the final straw for me was the fact that she told us she left for half the year and, understandably, had a hard time keeping up with the five acres she owned. While I’m alright with working, I definitely can’t motivate to do a bunch of manual labor in 100 degree weather if it’s all for naught.

For a minute, neither Casey nor I were certain where the other one stood with staying at the farm. We were originally planning to stay there for at least 3 weeks, and I was already thinking it would be nice to make it my home base for the remainder of my trip and travel from there. We are both on pretty tight budgets so it was important to us to have at least shelter taken care of. When we finally got a minute alone in the evening, we both just looked at each other and shook our head and were like, hell no are we staying here. I was like, well we only committed to a week, and Casey was like, I don’t even want to stay tonight! We agreed that sleeping there and heading out in the morning was the best idea. Though we definitely weren’t looking forward to the awkward conversation that would have to take place to tell her we were peacing out, we felt a lot of relief once we made the decision not to stay. In the morning we woke, told our host that the farm wasn’t what we expected and that we were going to leave, and were pleased to see that she took it well. I’m guessing it wasn’t the first time that had happened to her.

 

After the relief of heading out passed, we were left with a bit of anxiety about how we would manage the rest of our trips on meager bank accounts. We were temporarily relieved of that worry to experience the misery of hiking from the farm to the road with 60 pounds each, a couple miles down the mountain in the hot sun, and Casey’s ankle still blown up to boot. Luckily when we got to the road we almost immediately caught a ride from a nice older gentleman from the States who played lovely music and didn’t seem to want to talk much. He dropped us off at the bus station just in time to catch the last morning bus to Dominical. In our brainstorming about next moves, I’d remembered a sign at Piramys that stated they needed volunteers and we thought that was a viable option. So we hopped on the bus and backtracked the way we’d came, returning happily to the beach town that had, after only a week, already begun to feel like home.

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