February 13th

Day 15.

Today was the last full day that Lori and I would be in Costa Rica. We woke up, went downstairs, and ate breakfast, as we had done for the previous thirteen days. We had nothing planned for the day, and even though I was worn out, I was very thankful for a break.

We were sitting in the dining area, discussing what we wanted to do for the day, when we noticed the representative for the rental car company descending the steps toward our direction. “Surely he’s coming for someone else,” I told Lori. We flagged down our host, who was sitting nearby, and asked him what was going on. “Oh, actually, I forgot to tell you, but the rental car was actually due yesterday morning.” What? Had we miscalculated the number of days we’d needed the car? Evidently so.

I was disappointed that we would no longer be able to get around town so easily as before. But it was only a day, and then we’d be gone.

We went with the representative to the office in town and paid for another day. We were very grateful when he offered to drive us to any destination of our choice and asked that he drop us off at Marianne.

We spent a few hours at the bakery, and then we figured, since we didn’t have anything else to do, that we would go to Nativo for some drinks. We strolled down the dusty thoroughfare, stopping to browse souvenir shops along the way, until we got to the busy end of Santa Teresa.

We looked on to the bar. There was no one going in or out, but that made sense, as afternoons were usually less populated there. We walked closer to get a better look. But we were surprised to find that it was gated shut, there was no one inside, and all of the chairs were organized neatly, some stacked, some upside-down. “It’s closed?” I said. “Looks like it,” Lori said. Well, that was annoying — we had walked two hours for nothing. “Ohh,” she said, as if a light bulb had gone off. “It’s the rodeo.”

The rodeo in Costa Rica is a big deal. It’s an annual event, as you might expect. But unlike the rodeo in the U.S., the rodeo in Costa Rica isn’t local to a particular city. Instead, it’s like a concert tour, starting in one town and making its way around the country. It’s televised, it’s crazy, and everyone tunes in to watch.

Lori remembered just then that she had overheard someone talk about how the bar was closed today because most of the bartenders, who were also the owners, were going to the rodeo. I was flabbergasted. It would be unthinkable in the U.S. for a business to completely close because the people who work there would rather go to a national event for a day. You’re losing money, for heaven’s sake! But that didn’t seem to be a problem for this bar.

In the U.S., especially in the technology field in which I work, we talk about work/life balance, the idea that although work may dominate your time, it shouldn’t dominate your life. It’s not uncommon for a company to sell themselves to new employees by mentioning how they have a strong culture that promotes such a balance. Oftentimes, however, when push comes to shove, the idea remains just an idea. “Sure, you can take time off. But remember we’re launching something new this week, so if you could cancel your existing plans and work this weekend, that would be great.”

As you may know by now, Costa Ricans have a name for work/life balance: pura vida. And clearly, it’s not just an idea: they actually live it.

With the bar closed, Lori and I had to find somewhere else to go, as it was hot and we both needed a cold drink. Lori remembered that there was another restaurant/bar, one nearby the beach (Playa del Carmen). Fortunately, it was merely around the corner and down the street.

I’d seen the place when were in the water some days before, but I’d never been inside. I thought it was a typical beach bar: tables set on the sand with no shade, small bar area, expensive prices. It was quite the opposite! The decor, furniture, and table dressings gave the restaurant an upscale feel, but the walls were cut away so that it was open and looked out to the beachfront.

We sat down at the bar and flipped through the menu. Given that we seemed to be at a pizzeria, it seemed logical to order a pizza. There were plenty of choices, and we settled on a Hawaiian. It was nice: the slices were large, the pineapple was fresh, and the crust was hearty. We ordered a couple of Long Island Iced Teas and clinked our glasses to surviving two weeks in Costa Rica (without killing each other, to boot).

As the sun was setting, I got up from the bar and walked down to the beach. It was more crowded than usual. It was obvious that this was the place to be. Some people were still playing in the water, but most people were sitting on the sand with their blankets underneath them, hanging out with their friends or significant others, facing the sun, as though the horizon was a stage and we had all gathered to see the greatest band in history.

After the show had ended, I walked back and took my seat again. Some time afterward, as it was getting dark and the bar was starting to clear out, one of the bartenders flipped on the TV. The rodeo had just begun!

It was mesmerizing. The format was simple: there were two segments that flipped back and forth, and they were both equally exciting. The first segment was very similar to Running of the Bulls. A lightweight bull would be let loose into the arena, whereupon many people, participants who had likely volunteered, made it their mission to snatch some kind of ribbon off of the animal, while avoiding a horn in the butt and certain injury. Most people were, understandably, fearful, and kept to the fence around the arena; but a few daring men (and women) danced around the bull, sometimes charging forward madly, sometimes teasing him with a flag. No one ever seemed to be able to catch the ribbon on his back, but it didn’t matter, as the recklessness was show enough for the audience.

The second segment was more straightforward, as it was the bull-riding part of the event. There were some really good contenders who managed to stay on for a long time — a minute or more — and even show off a little. I thought these bullriders could give the ones in the U.S. a run for their money, honestly.

After an hour or so, the rodeo ended, and some other program started playing on the TV. By now it was dark, and we needed to go home. We paid our tab and texted our taxi driver to see if he was around. He wasn’t being responsive, so we started walking back to the main street. Amazingly, we ran into him near the bank! He was parked on the side of the road, as though he had just dropped off a customer some time ago, and seemed to be chatting with some buddies of his. We called him over and asked him if he’d seen our message. It was obvious from his response that he had been preoccupied. We told him that we’d need a ride in an hour, and could he watch out for a text from us? He said that it’d be better if we called, and we made a note of it.

Satisfied, we walked down to the bakery. (This was the busier bakery in the same area as Nativo and the bank.) As we’d be waking up early the next morning to catch our shuttle, we needed to get some sandwiches so we wouldn’t be hungry. A local artist was playing guitar in the corner as we walked in. We placed an order for the sandwiches, and as we were waiting for them to be made, we sat down and listened to the music. The woman had a soft but clear voice, and she was playing simple, acoustic versions of popular, albeit more classic, American songs. I was tired and perhaps a little frazzled, but the music managed to calm my nerves.

Having received our sandwiches, I dialed the number for our taxi driver. He didn’t pick up, and when I went to investigate the same place he’d been earlier, everyone had disappeared. Fortunately, another taxi happened to pass by and we were able to hail it and get back up the hill with some of our last remaining money.

We arrived back at the hotel, exhausted as usual, but excited for the following day. It would take another twenty-four hours, but we would finally be back in the States. We would finally be home.