There are some things in life that you know usher in change. They’re not necessarily the cause of said change, but at least they are the catalyst.
I mean, I maintain that it’s a bit cliché, albeit for good reason, to say that studying abroad is a life-changing experience. I think it’s partly because it generally comes right around the time of the transition from teen to adult. I mean, I think most people really grow up in the last few years of college, with or without studying abroad.
This is really just a round about way of saying that my second trip to Mal País helped me distill all this change into my new theory of life. Which is not quite like the numerous Grand Plans that litter the path behind me, but no so unlike them either. (I have been reading way too much Steinbeck.)
I woke up on Saturday morning to start my trek across the country. I’d like to say something poetic like “the sun rose in benediction over that fine day” but I honestly can’t remember what the weather was like.
I do however remember what the journey was like:
6:30 bus from Santa Rosa to Guapiles.
Step off the bus in Guapiles and immediately (literally, no waiting) get on the bus to San José. Get off the bus in San José, walk purposefully towards a taxi that pulls up just as I get to the curb, drops me off at the Puntarenas bus station. See you can either take a direct bus from San Jose to Mal País at 7:30 am or 2:30 pm or you can take the bus to the ferry, and then take another series of buses to get to Mal País. I got into San Jo at 9 and figured that I’d try my chances and not wait around for the direct bus. So the taxi drops me off at the Puntarenas bus station, I buy my ticket for the 10 o clock bus, use the facilties and go to wait the ½ hour until the bus begins loading, but I suppose they load as soon as tickets sell out, because as soon as I stepped up, they started loading. We left 20 minutes early.
Perfect, I’m thinking. I can totally catch the 12:30 ferry. The next one is 1:30, but that’s not too long a wait, and it means I can probably catch the last bus to Mal País at 2:30 from Cobano.
I should have learned long ago not to get cocky like that.
We hit traffic and got into Puntarenas at 12:20. Well, I’m not paying for a taxi for a ferry I probably won’t catch anyways, so I figure I’ll just walk. It’s a nice day, I have a small bag and I figure I have plenty of time. I’m at the shore, which is lined with Tico vacationers and cheap souvenir stalls and food carts. The ferry leaves from the shore, so I figure I’ll follow it up and eventually hit the ferry.
So I walk. About a half an hour later, I see a sign for the ferry, round a corner, and see a ferry. My mind starts racing. Coming or going? Coming or going!?!
The Dos Pinos ice cream man gives me my answer. He tells me that I need to run because the 1 o’clock ferry is leaving and the next one isn’t until 3.
I swore then, but it’s okay, because I’m pretty sure he didn’t speak English. I run. And I get to the ticket booth at 1. And I’m too late.
So I sit down and I start to try and hold back the tears. STUPID! If I’d just taken the taxi, I’d have made it. And now I’m stuck here for another two hours. What the hell am I going to do for three hours?
…I need a drink.
Luckily there is a bar/restaurant across the street, overlooking the ferry dock (so I don’t miss it again). I order a rum and coke and a plate of fries (the first food I’ve eaten since 5:30 am) and continue to try and cork my tears.
The bar and the few tables around it are packed with locals. The rest of the tables in the place are empty, save mine, and two others that host tourists. One group of locals plays cards, and a group of five men joke at the bar. There’s a table with two old men, one who looks more Caribbean than Tico and the other who looks more Tico than anything, who aren’t acknowledging each other. The one is engrossed in an old newspaper and the other is dreaming off out the window.
There are various plastic fish decorating the place, a few beer ads and a distinctively round clock. There is radio music coming from a 5-CD changer stero that sits on top of a NICE sound board and speaker set. One of the men at the bar walks over, drops a coin into the slot machine next to me and succeeds only in producing that distinctively tinkling noise of the turning bells, lemons and bar symbols. This one, I think, was Spider man themed.
It was nice, and helped me pull myself out of a bit of a funk.
Eventually, I caught the 3 o’clock ferry and found myself on the bus to Cobano unsure of the next step. Miraculously I got off at the right stop, as the sky was warming with the promise of sunset. I rolled up my pant legs and tried to ask a woman what my next move should be. I see the sign for the taxi company, but I see no building beneath the sign… So I ask “I know I’ve missed the last bus to Mal País, but…” But she interrupts. No, it’s right there. Literally it pulled up behind the bus I’d just gotten off. Off one, on the other, just like it’d started out today.
Man I love traveling.
I looked out the window until I couldn’t see out anymore and hopped out in front of the hostel Ems and I’d planned to meet at, content that the night was practically over. Probably she was already there.
Turns out it was not and she was not.
The hostel is really funky – it’s called Casa Zen and houses one of the best Thai food places I’ve ever eaten at (and that is the kind of place Mal País is). Sadly, it does not take reservations, and turns out, it was full up.
It’s 6 at night, dark and I have no where to sleep and no idea where Ems is except that she had been at a protest that morning and was hoping that she wouldn’t get arrested like the leaders had been the previous year.
And being the brilliant child I am, I didn’t leave her a note as I wandered off into the night. I walked into the only other hostel I knew, the Backpackers and confronted the guy at the desk.
“Look, I know it’s a long shot in the dark, but do you happen to have two beds available for tonight?”
And he did.
Long story short, I found beds, I found Ems wandering the streets and all was right with the world.
But the thing is, that’s not really the part that prompted the Theory of Life.
Nothing specifically did. I mean, I could give you a run down of the whole weekend, like how we talked over Thai food for like two hours, even though we’d only been apart for two weeks, went out that night with some of the hostel kids (lots of kids from Norway, Israel and Florida), like how we got up early the next morning, out of habit, and ended up walking down the beach to take pictures and ending up trekking for three hours ending up in the middle of nowhere, almost burned to a crisp, thirsty, hungry and pissed off. Or how at that point we decided to trek back on the road and stop at the first place we saw, and how after walking for 45 minutes hadn’t seen any but thankfully got a ride in the back of a pick up with the surfers who’d had to break it to us that we were 3 km away from the hostel and 1 km away from any food. And how delicious that food was and how beautiful it was to spend the rest of the afternoon napping in hammocks amongst reds, oranges and yellows.
I could tell you about how I didn’t get one good picture of a surfer all weekend, but played a ton of pool with a kid from Germany, a kid from Ireland and two guys from Florida.
I could bring up the fact that, save the thai food, we didn’t eat at one of the planned places because we were only there for a Sunday, when everything is closed. But it was amazing anyways.
Basically, it wasn’t the weekend I’d planned, but that was just fine. As I stood on the ferry, watching the retreating landmass that I loved so much, I got the urge to turn back and just stay. Just say “fuck it,” leave the internship and try to find a job waitressing or as the receptionist that they were looking for at the Backpackers, perhaps just until my flight home, perhaps indefinitely. Struggling with a bittersweet melancholy, that was only partially due to that deliciously oppressive heat of the dog days of summer, I watched the sun dancing around on the top of the water and then slanting down through it. It reminded me of the cabin.
I don’t think that I can ever really accurately describe the vibe of Mal País except that it is a community, heavy with ex-pats, that enjoys surfing and yoga and feels intrinsically artistic. It is a place that makes me want to surf and to sit on the beach and write and draw in my notebook and eat food that includes lemon grass and ginger. It’s not the most breath-taking beach in the country, and it definitely doesn’t really feel like a part of Costa Rica at all, but it’s one of those places that I know I’ll go back to.
The last time I had that feeling, that peaceful melancholy that follows an impulse to throw it all away and just stay in a place, and the surety of return, I was sitting on a wall above the sea in San Sebastian. We were waiting to head to the train station to catch the train that would take us back to Paris to catch the flight that would take us home, after two months, to start college and the rest of our lives.
But it was kind of nice this time. Because something about that weekend with people whose attitude towards life I so admired because it blends a profound appreciation for life with a calm and inner peace that I’m not ready to lose myself to but to which I aspire, and also a purely logical “what are you waiting for?” which is actually more of an answer than a question.
Which of course, was exactly the attitude that got me surfing the following weekend in Bocas del Toro