3/21 — Playa Hermosa, Puriscal, Cuidad Colón, and La Fortuna, Costa Rica

Abandoned resort west of Jaco

We woke up with Ronny knocking on our door, classic tico breakfast in hand. Over his shoulder we saw the water was smooth, low wind, and the breaks were strong. They were often strong closeouts that ripped the dark sand up at the breakline, and made an arcing wave face look like a shot of deep space from the Hubble Telescope. Clouds of brown and sparkling sand billowing through backlit blue. I paddled into a large right, leaned forward, waited a moment to slide down the face, and popped up. I took a slightly right direction and sped along the wave face, digging in at the bottom and straightening out as the wave broke. It started to die out and I caught a small turn before pulling out lightly.

I stayed caught inside the massive beach break for a while, fighting to get out. A large set had come and one of the largest waves was picking up in front of me. There was no way me and a thick board were going to duck dive it. I was the only one around, I ditched the board and dove straight down. I felt the backwards pull on my feet, then thighs, then my my entire body. The force of the wave sucked me up and poured me backward straight over the lip and into a long whitewater torment. I spluttered out trying to keep my head above water in the loose whitewater, and paddled out again to catch one or two more.

Ben and I started driving to La Fortuna and passed a massive abandoned condo resort near Jaco. We turned off, snuck in and explored. The resort seemed to have been nearly finished, the rooms were eerily still semi-furnished. The building was falling apart. We climbed the stairs all the way to the top and gazed out over Jaco. We looked down on what once was intended to be a wonderful tropical pool and lazy river, now overgrown with foliage and a quarter filled with deep green water. In exploring the lower floors we heard voices, snuck out the garage level and ran back on the to the car.

In a curious moment of decision, we decided to drive to Puriscal. Frankly, I was surprised I even suggested it. Puriscal was ground zero for my mission, the first place I went after I got in. Puriscal is a sacred and terrifying place in my mind, and has been for 7 years. Puriscal sits spread in small rural barrios in massive, green, rainforest hills, and a tightly packed town center with a massive abandoned church. I had shown up with the roughest idea of what was going on, a companion who didn’t speak any English, and was unceremoniously placed organically in what to me felt like the end of the earth. I remember waking up in the morning the first days, hearing chickens, sun on my face, terrified. I remember waking around in a pressing need to just feel okay, I’ve never felt more isolated than when I was there. I didn’t know how to use the phones because I didn’t even know who there was to call, I could hardly speak to anyone and could only communicate basic things. Food was torture to eat, the cocinera and my companion asked several times if I was sick. I didn’t know, maybe? It was profoundly deeper than sickness. It was the anxiety of fear, the overwhelming dark solitude, walking a mountain path late at night in the warm, damp air.

If you had asked me where I was on a map I couldn’t have shown you. We taught a family in a warehouse room, it was small and my knees were touching the nearly bed-ridden women in from of me. I didn’t understand, I never really did. I felt varying degrees of that the full 2 years I was there. I’ve never felt angry about it ever, but certainly confused. I remember walking through lush forest in the damp, heavy heat — an infinite number of times. We walked everywhere on our missions, taking buses and hitching rides when needed. If I could talk to myself, when I was there in Puriscal the very first time I’m not even sure what I would say. Maybe it would be best if I didn’t say anything. The younger me would ask “do I get better?”, “a little”, I would say. “What’s the trick, how do I do it”, “I never really figured it out, but you wake up every day, the minutes feel like hours, going back home never feels real, it feels like an impossibly far concept, and the road from here to there is an unthinkably long and seemingly endless black box.” I’m sure I would ask myself if it was worth it, “yes”. It was. It was worth it, but it was a personal and nearly solitary crucible in which I let go of everything that made me who I was. Step by step I was deconstructed, the fabric of the life I knew removed, bare bones remained. I got more comfortable over time in Costa Rica, I didn’t like the anxiety I very, very often felt, but I knew enough to know I was afraid of feeling anxious and fearful.

Very early on in my mission I was at a bus stop with Elder Davis, I was trying to explain this strange, twisted feeling the was filling me. To illustrate, I told Elder Davis (Kyle) that if the plants next to the bust stop grew legs and started walking across the road, I would feel no different than I did in that moment. I was feeling so removed, so abstractly isolated in a strange world I didn’t understand, I really, honestly wouldn’t have felt any different. Yeah, it sounds crazy, I don’t quite expect anyone to get it. I still don’t, completely.

It’s depressing, I know that. But minutes and days very slowly passed. Things went up and down. I got more comfortable, I made friends. We explored the deep rainforest, going to places few people have probably been. I played jokes on Ben and gave him the number to a local pizza place whenever he asked for someone’s number to set up a visit (2249–0909, if you’re interested). I was immersed in a new world. Costa Rica is fairly modern, it had running water and electricity almost everywhere. The average yearly income is $6.8k, the average American makes 7 times that. But while modern, there are a lot, a lot, of poor people. It doesn’t mean they’re sad, for me their feelings are perspective leveraged by relativity. We immersed ourselves endlessly with families and people living in roughly built communities of used wood and tin. Tirrases, Sinai, etc. Almost everyone had food to eat (rice and beans). Nicaraguan communities generally were much worse than Costa Rican communities. We also walked through nice barrios with large portones and fences. Life is better for Nicaraguans in Costa Rica, the gears of industry are moving and they draft behind it.

We exposed ourselves vulnerably. People were generally kind. I saw innumerable, beautiful things. I was part of Costa Rica, I’d like to think I still am. It is certainly still a part of me. I drew closer to people, nos metimos íntimamente en su mundo. I felt that we became part of that world, residents of it, looking up from inside it, not down from above.

My life there deconstructed the structure of my being. I closed my eyes and kept going as every bit of me seemed to slip off, sometimes painfully. It exposed me in ways I didn’t know possible, and in most aspects I remain exposed, like bone.

I learned things, not it in the way you learn for an exam. The things I learned were built into the core, exposed, vulnerable creature I was (and still am, though less painfully). They never seemed to be learned in my head, they instead saturated into me as a person. I learned that almost every single person is good, I can hardly think of a single person trying to actually do bad. Everyone has a story to tell, a path that led them here and shapes their vector and vision. In our hearts, I believe we are all good people. I learned that poverty in its many forms is not a measured in statistics, and it’s not a news report. It is real people, lives, stories, bodies, children, homes, rivers, communities, bus rides, long walks, mindless work, no work, fear of the massive societal machine overhead, phone bills, dirt floors, fear, emptiness, endless hours, dirt roads under yellow lights, laughing with a family. There is a particular group of people that have spent so much time maintaining rural fields, the bottom of the Dole pyramid, who seem to have disconnected from their being. They work, they sleep, they talk quietly, but maybe as a way to cope with their apparent absence in most of the world’s view, they too have disconnected from their very selves. We talked with one guy just like this, this week, and we’ve talked with countless more living there. In one hour eating company supplied snacks at lunch, the average tech worker earns what a bananero worker earns in a full week.

Coming back to the US after two years sickened me. All these specialty groups, the HOAs, the committees to address all of our tiniest special interests because we “deserve” it, because we feel like our existence owes us these things, this attention. All the while, the majority of the world is trying to address a much more basic degree of human need: feeding themselves, housing themselves. We worry about the compounding interest on our 401ks and if we’ll have enough to travel to Cabo every year when we retire, while a large portion of the world is fighting to keep food on the table for the next week. We feel like we need 10 different handbags, each essential for different occasions. The first world is addressing such diversified, “petty” priorities because it’s baseline of existence has risen so high. In a way it’s quite admirable that we’ve been able to achieve that level. I lived with the people in Costa Rica, it soaked into me like a rag and has never left. Costa Rica isn’t even that bad, relatively, to many other countries.

A lot of people are happy, truly, regardless of the circumstance. A lesson that cost me dearly to learn: happiness, generally, is the net difference between what we expect (our baseline of reality), and what we experience.

A last lesson, which also cost me dearly, and continues to: what we experience, and how we feel, are often far less correlated than I think.

Now, back at ground zero, the town center of Puriscal was busy and I took it in. We stopped in a far removed area up in the hills that I used to teach at. We parked and walked down the dirt road, a road and place no tourist would ever find themselves. We passed a guy smoking down below, who looked up, saw that we were white and just said, in his best attempt to connect to us, “Yes!” (in english).

There was a time in my life that I would have said that I would never go back to Puriscal. We walked to a panadería, took in town center, and drove to Cuidad Colon (the next town over, and what was my second-ish area). Lots of details came back, a bit too much for comfort.

We stopped by the apartment we used to live in. I had forgotten about the gate, the stairs, the alley. I had forgotten what it felt like to walk out of the alley in the sun. The feeling was never really a pleasant one. I wouldn’t ever relive it. We had pizza in a place that we’ve always thought was cool, Che Pizza (Argentinian). We were able to get in touch with two people we had taught when we were there and they walked around town with us for a bit. They are sisters, and seemed to be doing well. The were still into the church, and it was a pleasure to see them.

Driving to La Fortuna

We left and drove to La Fortina as it got darker. The darker it got, the rainier it seemed to be. The road was winding, and the drive was long. We arrived in La Fortina worse for wear with no place to stay. We asked around and got a decent room in a hostel. The hostel has a central area where we sat and tried to shake off the long day in the car. We talked for a bit with a German women who had been traveling around Central America for a month.

I stayed and read for a bit, and went to bed exhausted mentally and physically. I was a bit jarred by seeing my old areas. I’m glad we went. It didn’t carry any catharsis. It was another point in the history of an impactful place. Ben was good for humoring the stops. He had lived with me in Cuidad Colon, and it had an interesting surrealism to it.

Puriscal town center