How a foreign country taught me how to really live
We were at an outdoor market. After 10 days in Tamarindo, Costa Rica, I had become accustomed to the sweat that continually dripped down my back. I looked over at my then-boyfriend (and now husband) Shane, who was gazing down at a small wooden frog. The sweat dripped off of his forehead as he gazed down at this beautiful treasure. It was November 2006, but you would have thought it was July.
Shane picked up this small wooden frog, almost golden in color with dark grains running through it, and looked at the woman working there.
“Cocobolo?” he asked.
That was the one time in 10 days that we had communicated with any Costa Rican — not because we didn’t want to, but because we didn’t speak a lick of Spanish. We didn’t know the language, but Shane knew the wood. That was our commonality with the people. A little ironic considering that back then, Shane and I were still doing the corporate gig — suit and tie and stilettos and blouse every day. 15 years later, neither of us would be caught dead in that sort of wardrobe — or job.
I think back to this moment all the time. You know those moments in your life when you can feel in your bones that this is something to remember? You don’t know why, but your mind tells you to put a frame around that second because it means something. This was one of those moments for me.
Now, Shane is a woodworker, and a fantastic one at that. Now, I spend my days building and renovating homes. Interesting how we both realized building the world around us would build our own souls.
And now, we’ve been back to Costa Rica two more times. That place is home for us. I dream of the day we can have a woodshop there and complete the circle.
The Introduction: Adventure
Shane and I initially traveled to Costa Rica on a whim. Friends of friends of ours (whom we didn’t know, actually) were getting married there, so we thought, “Why not?” We were young and wild and free. With zero arrangements made beyond our plane tickets, we took off for adventure.
Our first stop was Monteverde, meaning Green Mountain. The mountain part was real. The roads were made of dirt and rock, and our Xterra teetered along as chunks of mountain tumbled down the precipice. It was a dicey drive, to say the least — made dicier by our inability to ask for directions and increasingly wild given the lack of convenience stores or stops along the way. (My then-boyfriend-now-husband and I lost any remaining shreds of modesty with the “squatty stops” made on the side of those harrowing roads.)
We finally made it to the best $18-a-night hotel Monteverde had to offer — you had to pay extra for the hot water. But damn was it amazing. That night, we had dinner in a tree — a literal tree with tables and chairs and a huge spread of every kind of meat and grilled veggies. I inhaled my meal with an Imperial (their local beer) that I can still taste when I close my eyes.
It might have been my mother’s nightmare, but this…this was living.
We followed the mountain down through the rain and mud to a place called Tabacon in La Fortuna, known for its hot springs near the Arenal Volcano. We soaked in the warm waters, explored the lava rocks, and soaked in this place that was raw with beauty.
The Return: Celebration
Ten years, a marriage, and three children later, Shane and I returned. Once you sit under a waterfall heated from the earth’s core, you can’t stay away.
We made our way to the Nicoya Peninsula on the Pacific Coast, a blue zone where the people live forever. They live in a way that celebrates everything of the earth: fish straight from the sea, fresh fruit, and a pure appreciation for life that really isn’t understood here in the U.S.
In Costa Rica, you hear the phrase “Pura Vida” a lot. It literally means “pure life” or “simple life,” but it’s more of a feeling than a meaning. It’s practiced, passed down, and felt by outsiders. We were able to connect with the people of this beautiful land even though we could not speak their language. It became clear, in some sort of Eat, Pray, Love moment that we are all the same. We all want and need love — to be cared for and care for others is what brings true joy. I owe this realization to the Ticos.
The Third Time: Healing
COVID dealt its cruel hand on us all, but one bright spot was canceled travel vouchers that we decided to use to visit our favorite place. Like so many others, Shane and I were trying to shake off the “quaranten” pounds of treat-yourself coping mechanisms that included several too many build-your-own charcuterie boards.
So this time, the theme was wellness. We had a “dieta” the month before and did our trip completely vegan. Everything we ate was from the earth and made us feel connected to the land beneath our feet.
We practiced yoga daily and at night would listen to the Shipibo songs and howler monkeys and waves hitting the beach. You can see the entire Milky Way in its magic and mystery. It’s a spiritual experience, and reminds you of the tiny speck of life we hold in the universe made by our Creator.
Our first trip was adventure.
The second was celebration and rest.
The third was healing and wellness.
I love my home in Piedmont. I love the familiarity of my front doorknob inside my palm, the sound of the floorboards creaking as I walk barefoot down the hall, the laugh of my neighbor when he cracks a joke and the smell of gardenias in the summer. If I have to live in the United States, I have to live here in the South where my grandparents have dug in the same dirt and built their lives.
If the Upstate has my heart, though, then Costa Rica has my soul. The wild, firing red and yellow Heliconias, the taste of coffee grown in the ground beneath my feet, the echo of howler monkeys in the trees … this is a land that lives and breathes every minute as if it has no more. This is how I aim to live my life every day: every hour, every minute, every second I howl my emotions and feel the fire of my thoughts.
Some people say I’m too much. I’m okay with that. To me, living the “pure life” is really the only way to really live, and I owe Costa Rica for giving me this gift.