A Suburban Girl Goes To The Jungle

Would I survive my first international trip?

By Megan Turchi

“I highly recommend the anti-malaria pill, the tetanus shot, bug spray with Deet, Hepatitis A and B shots, a typhoid shot, and Cipro, a prescription for travelers’ diarrhea,” explained the nurse from Wellesley health services. Malaria and food borne illness? Typhoid? Do people even get that anymore? Should I go on this weeklong trip to Costa Rica with the varsity soccer team?

I had never been out of the country before and my worries were numerous. At dinner that night, my well-travelled teammates laughed out loud at the precautions health services suggested. Back in my room, I speed dialed my local doctor who put me in touch with the Director of Disease Control at Mass General Hospital. I bit my nails as I waited to hear their verdict: the malaria risk was low, and the precautions were unnecessary.

Still, I was cautious. I packed way too much and at the airport my bag was overweight. Not from clothes or shoes, but bottled water. From Wikipedia and word of mouth, I learned that all of the water below U.S. borders is dirty and unfit for human consumption. The website listed precautions: Trust no one. Drink only securely bottled water. Make sure the safety seal has not been broken. I went against my better sense and threw the bottles of water away. I had one left, so I would need to conserve it wisely.

We landed in San Jose, Costa Rica around 9:00 at night. Our bus driver, Jose, and tour guide, Eric, greeted us with a smile and the phrase, “pura vida,” or “pure life,” as it is used to greet, to say goodbye, to celebrate, or merely to give a friend a midday pick me up. Everything seemed to be quite safe.

The first highway we took out of San Jose, on our way to Turrialba, was a five-lane freeway, lined with the comfort of chain restaurants, car dealerships, and grocery stores, when unexpectedly I nearly flew out of my seat as Jose suddenly veered off the main road. He drove through small towns and on mountain roads, some unpaved. I felt like I was on a rollercoaster at Magic Mountain about to prepare for a big drop, twist, or turn. It was pitch black without a single streetlight. Dios mio. I bounced up, banging my head on the ceiling as Jose went over a pothole in the road at 70 miles an hour. He stayed turned around to sing “Call Me Maybe” with the team, as every few minutes he looked back at the windy road to steer. The team sung right along with him. My knuckles were white as I gripped the seat in front of me.

La Casa Turire was the first of the two hotels. The staff immediately greeted the team with a perky midnight “pura vida,” and they directed everyone to their rooms. I put the key into the lock and jumped, as a massive, green, slimy ball was plopped in the corner. The toad ribbetted telling me I had intruded on his personal space. Ay caramba. Just as I sprinted to ask someone to remove the animal, I saw the hotel owner educating my friends about the Cane toad, who enjoys eating beetles and spiders, is the largest amphibian in Costa Rica, and lives in low mountain regions and also apparently at La Casa Turire. The hotel welcomed these toads as guests and equals. The last time I had seen a frog I was at the San Diego Wild Animal Park. Pura vida, Mr. Toad.

La Casa Turire hotel in Turrialba. Scary, right?

My two roommates and I settled into our room. Emily, the bug hunter, sat at the window letting a praying mantis run up her arm, while Claire poked at a stink beetle. Why were these bugs in our room? I took a five second shower since the water was below freezing. I went to remove a leaf that was attached to my foot. As my hand went to brush it away, I soon realized it was not a leaf, but a live baby lizard! If only the Crocodile Hunter could see this. I grabbed my towel and screeched for Claire. She picked it up with her bare hands and let it free in the lobby. After my adrenaline rush, I went to bed, listening to the bugs, frogs, and lizards scurry around our room throughout the night. I pulled my covers above my head to save me from the monsters.

Breakfast at La Casa Turire.

Breakfast the next morning consisted of rice and beans with cilantro, fresh mango, papaya, and pineapple, toast, and eggs from the farm next door. The surrounding landscape was entirely green and resembled a Jurassic Park movie. I had to pinch myself to remember this was real, and not a fabricated movie set. The volcano in the background was visibly smoking. Greeting me with a “pura vida,” Jose told me this was not something one gets to see everyday. He described this potentially lethal, disastrous natural landscape with ease and comfort. Why did I go to the Pompeii exhibit at the Museum of Science a month before this trip? Still, as I imagined flaming lava rolling down to Turrialba, it was hard to ignore the lush beauty surrounding the hotel. To the right was the local farm with horses grazing in the field, while to the left was a giant lake surrounded by orange and yellow flowers. Butterflies gulped up honey – they didn’t have a care in the world.

Soon after, Jose was, but again, speeding down a narrow mountain road. Headed toward the Pacuare River to white water raft, a million fears came flowing back toward me. Jose slammed on the breaks and my head hit the seat in front of me. He got out of the bus and grabbed something from a bush, like a snake capturing its prey. Yelling “pura vida,” he came back on the bus proudly displaying a red tree frog. He claimed it was poisonous, as it crawled all over his legs and arms. Everyone laughed and cheered, as I hoped it wouldn’t get anywhere near me. Yeah, pura vida. After taking a few pictures, he dropped the tree frog back outside, and continued to look for other animals, sometimes looking back at the road to steer. The bus pulled up to the side of the river; there was no information booth, touristy slogans or concrete buildings, only a bunch of river rafting instructors with helmets and paddles.

The most “outdoorsy” activity I have ever participated in was walking into my backyard to clean up after my dogs. It did not exactly prepare me for what was about to occur. I put on my life jacket and checked it 14 times to make sure the straps were tight. The instructors spewed off safely rules and tips. Why wasn’t I give a safety manual so I could have prepared before? Que ridículo! Not remembering a single thing they said, I got in the boat and headed down the 18-mile river course. The Pacuare, being ranked on National Geographic as one of the best rivers to raft down in the world for its accessibility and remote jungle feel, was an unforgettable sight. The water was warm and was surrounded on both sides by untouched rainforest. Waterfalls cascaded off the hillside, logs floated down the river, and the trees hung above, creating a natural shade. It was hard to remember that I was not on the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland. This trip was a constant reminder that I was experiencing something real. I was in the middle of nature and it wasn’t controlled by a movie or an amusement park.

The raft instructor in the back of the boat yelled, “fast left,” “hard right,” and a variety of other instructions. It was in these times of utter commotion that I forgot which way was left or right and I began moving my paddle in any which way. When the water calmed and I realized I had made it another rapid without peeing myself, our instructor yelled “pura vida” with his paddle in the air and smiled with a sense of accomplishment.

I give a big thumbs up after losing my fear.

I opened my eyes and saw the sights around me. The massive, overwhelming trees had vines dangling down to the warm water, skimming the surface. I heard howler monkeys roaring in the distance, living up to their given name. I saw sloths lying in the trees, their brown fur turning a greenish color because they move slow enough for plants to leech on their backs. Birds buzzed around above. I could hear Jose cheering from his boat a few feet ahead. Though he had rafted countless times before, his appreciation and knowledge of the surrounding nature demonstrated that humans could coincide with the landscape. All of my previous worries evaded me. They had evaporated into the jungle air – I was floating in a world without fear.

After three days in Turrialba, we moved to a coastal town called Manzanillo, in the Province of Limon, for the last three days. Almonds and Corals, our hotel, was more of a campsite than a hotel. Claire, Emily, and I were given our key and we walked on the wooden paths through the vibrant green jungle to hut number three. Wearing a forest green tank top, I blended into the surroundings. I was a chameleon, lost in the various shades of green. There was no concrete making up the structure of our room; we had mosquito nets as walls. The wooden stairs up to the door creaked as the three of us avoided spider webs. Jose said none of the spiders were poisonous, prompting Emily to pick up the first one she saw, which was a Golden Orb. About 15 feet away from our room was a bright yellow venomous Viper coiled against the tree, which Jose said would send us to the hospital with one bite. I know I should be terrified. Why do I feel somehow feel safe? Pura vida, Megan. Pura Vida.

As I unpacked my suitcase and caked myself with bug spray, I turned around only to find a family of bats – which had previously only existed for me on Animal Planet – hanging from our mosquito nets. Deep in thought about how comfortable this connection with nature was starting to feel, my roommates and I heard a piercing scream come from the hut next door. Was there a jaguar attack?! I ran through three spider webs and hopped over two lizards on the way to my teammate’s room, only to find a cockroach the size of Kobe Bryant’s shoe. When I saw my teammate cry in fear, I reflected on how fearless I had become. What is there to be afraid of? Just enjoy this experience of living in nature’s most diverse area. Deal with the adverse conditions.

Throughout the rest of the evening, I heard a variety of complaints from “it’s too hot,” to “I am getting eaten by mosquitos,” to “the howler monkeys are too loud for me to sleep,” to “there are bugs in my bed.” All of which were now incomprehensible to me. I was in the rainforest, experiencing what people pay to go to amusement parks and zoos to see. Only, this was real. Life couldn’t get better. I went to bed that night listening to bugs buzzing, howler monkeys roaring, and the ocean slapping against the sand – I had never had a better nights sleep.

On our last full day, the agenda was to zip line through the rain forest. I have a fear of heights. From standing on a step stool to driving over the Golden Gate Bridge, I am terrified. Flying across the canopy at almost 30 miles per hour, 500 feet up in the air would never have been my first choice of activity. As I walked up a rickety old staircase held together by a few ropes, I watched my teammates shake and talk about how scared they were. I anxiously awaited my turn. As I got to the end of the platform, adrenaline pushed me over the edge as I glided in the air, screaming louder than a howler monkey, smiling from ear to ear. This was not a virtual reality screen at Universal Studios; I was experiencing something real. I no longer felt out of my comfort zone; adventure and the unknown felt natural.

Manzanillo beach.

My teammates and I decided to spend the last night at the pristine beach in Manzanillo. As I lay on my back, allowing the water to take me as it wished, I reflected on my time in Costa Rica. I felt a wave of regret as I remembered my past fears, when a spontaneous thought engulfed me like a wave. Taking a quick glance around to make sure I was far enough away from my friends so that only my face was in sight, I undid my bikini top, pulled off my bottoms, and threw my bathing suit up in the air. Immediately my teammates followed. This moment of pure liberation, pure freedom in the last few hours of the best trip of my life, embodied my transformation and stripped away any sense of fear I once had. As the sun finally made its way past the horizon, darkness fell on the sand as my team and I walked back to the hotel. There was pure and utter silence, as I took in the brightness of moon on the sand and its reflection in the water. Though the I would soon depart, that moment will always be frozen in time as a reminder that new experiences do not need to be feared, but need to be looked at as an opportunity to uncover one’s true self.

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