My Journey to Costa Rica. Ocean, Eating, Reflection.

Reflection One: Canadian Passport

Approximately a year and a half after hiking the Inca Trail, I find myself in a hotel room in San Jose, Costa Rica. On route since 2am.

I felt pretty proud of myself. I got a taxi on my own to the hotel. Although my Spanish is limited, I was able to communicate enough with taxi drivers to ensure I was paying a normal amount of money to get where I needed to go. The taxi driver who took the trip was a man named José. He had two children and a wife of 16 years. One of his dreams, was to come to Canada so his children could get a good post-secondary education and have a better life. I began my trip feeling privileged and thankful for my Canadian passport. José spoke about why Canada is where he wants to live with his family; a stable economy, good education that the government helps you pay for and political safety.

I always feel at home when I travel to South America, however maybe that is because I do not live there.

José also spoke to me in simple Spanish the whole 45 minute drive. I communicated to him at the beginning of the ride, that I understood more Spanish than I spoke and was able to say simple sentences. At times, this was frustrating for me as the thoughts I wanted to communicate at certain points in the conversation were rather complex. In these situations, he would help me by guessing what I wanted to say in limited English. When we were really stuck, he had a translator on his phone which he would have me speak English into so he could hear it translated to Spanish. An example of a statement we used the translator for, was when we began speaking about divorce rates in North America and how people in North America “…buy things to make them happy”. To which José looked at me and nodded his head and said “Yes. That is so true. People in America go to work and sleep. That is all they do”.

I mean, we were basically best friends by the end of the trip – exchanging WhatsApp numbers and all. However, my main point of all this was that he had the patience with me as a foreigner, to engage with me and help me with my Spanish and he truly put effort into communicating with me.

It made me think of how I wish more people in the world treated others different from them with so much love and respect.

Reflection Two (Poem): My Father in the Streets of Costa Rica

The sounds are different here. 

Maybe that is why my heart feels lighter – More calm, more at peace. 

The sounds of the birds in the palm trees and the breeze in the air. 

Lovers, kissing and embracing. 

The sound of a man singing as he walks – without a care – or at least the song makes it so. 

The sounds are different, but the same. 

In the man’s voice, I hear my father singing to my mother in the kitchen when I was a child. 

I walk close to the man, so I can hear my father…

as I walk the streets of Costa Rica. 

Reflection Three: Career Reflections 

Throughout my time in Costa Rica, I reflected on my career in social work. At the beginning of the trip, I felt stuck. I knew that I went into the social work field because it inherently represented who I was as a person. Someone who believes in social justice and advocacy and someone whose nature leads me to help others without thinking twice. However, there are parts of the social work field which are difficult to sometimes live with as a regular part in my every day life. I sometimes find it difficult to be the person who feels like they need to fix everything for everyone and who sees the saddest parts of peoples lives on a day to day basis. As a social worker, I experience trauma as a regular part of my job and I am immersed in a world where the unthinkable, is thinkable.

I thought to myself many times throughout my trip – am I where I want to be career wise? And if I am, can I see myself working in the social work field for the rest of my life? Is a higher paying job with increased stress something I am able to justify? If the higher paying job allows me to follow my passion of travelling, how do I manage my personal coping mechanisms? How do I manage my expectations of myself in my role in order to decrease the stress I experience? Staying in a job solely for financial reasons, is deeply against some of my core values.  There needs to be more in order for me to feel like I am not breaking the promise I made to myself when I graduated a few years ago. I thought deeply about the benefits and consequences of both staying and leaving the social work field throughout my vacation.

Everything in life happens for a reason. I believe I was called to Costa Rica and that my heart followed that calling. I have worked to be happy with who I am, and feel I have achieved that after many years of truly being unhappy with myself. I was unhappy with how I looked, how I acted and who I was. I am proud to say that after many years of personal work, I am no longer in that dark place.

The Costa Rican people have a saying – Pura Vida. It means, Pure Life. It means to live simple and enjoy life to the fullest. What is more simple and complex than happiness?

A part of me experienced fear around leaving the social work field. A voice inside me that told me that if I left, I would be quitting and that I would be a quitter, which I something I push myself not to be. However, how long do I push myself to do something, before I realize I am not a quitter and I am not running away – I am simply ensuring that whatever I do, brings me happiness. Maybe that is social work, maybe it is not.

Interestingly enough. The G adventures CEO and I had many conversations around careers and societal expectations. He spent much of his life bouncing from job to job, from place to place, on a quest to ensure that whatever he was doing was bringing him happiness. What was reassuring, was that he was 10 years older than me, and still did not know all the answers. I started believing that if I was open to it, the Universe would guide me in the direction I needed to go.

Reflection Four: Old Fears… 

One night, when everyone in my group went out for drinks, I stayed at the hotel. I don’t completely remember the reason. I think it was because we all had to get up early the next morning.

An old fear of mine, crept into bed with me that night. That I already, two days into the trip, didn’t fit in.

Maybe it is because I am in my head too much. Maybe I act like a know-it-all?, Maybe people may think I am stuck up for not going out for drinks.

Then a voice comes to defend me against my fear. “Why do you care what people think? You are friendly, you are authentic, you are genuine, you are being you. You also are someone who likes your sleep. And if you are sleep deprived, then for sure no-one will like you!”.

Instead of drinking, I would rather have conversations. Rather than my personality being altered by alcohol, I want to be in control of my thoughts and actions so I can learn about others, engage in meaningful interactions and grow new friendships. I am not judging others who may choose to do this differently. But after 26 years, I know who I am and what I like and don’t like. And I like my sleep and I don’t like to drink often. I also know that despite being an extravert, I need time to myself in order to be able to continue being the friendly and social person I strive to be.

“It’s interesting” the defending voice says. “Here you are worrying that people don’t like you – yet all the people you think don’t like you, asked you to come out with them”. With that, I stopped my journaling and went to sleep.

Only to be awoken by altitude-related stomach sickness.

At 2am, my roommate arrived saying “You made the right choice not to come out. I should have stayed and slept too”.

And with that, fear disappeared into the Costa Rican breeze, not to be heard from again for the remainder of the trip.

Reflection Four: Things I Did Not Know About Costa Rica

  • They do not have an army. Rather than put funding into armies and weapons, they chose to fund education and infrastructure.
  • 25% of the land in Costa Rica is protected National Forest land.
  • 90% of their energy is renewable.
  • They are 100% carbon free.
  • They pride themselves on being eco-friendly and prioritize recycling.
  • They are rated as one of the happiest countries in the world.
  • They believe in Pura Vida – the simple life.

Reflection Five: Experiences as a Solo Female Traveler 

There was a situation that occurred one night when the group was at a restaurant. We were all having drinks and enjoying conversation amongst each other. There was a very attractive waiter who was serving our table. At one point in the evening, he bought me a drink and placed it in front of me. Now, normally I do not let people buy me drinks. I personally believe that it is my responsibility as a woman, not to take advantage of a guy trying to spend money on me by buying me a drink. I can buy my own drinks. However, in this situation, I was not asked by the waiter if he could buy me a drink. It also was not done in an insulting way. It actually felt quite flattering. He was not overbearing or rude. It simply felt like a gesture saying “You’re pretty, here is a drink on me”. Going beyond the questionable reactions to the free drink by some of the guys on the trip, the one thing that stood out to me the most was the statement of an individual after we left the restaurant.

As we all gathered our items, the waiter joked with me asking where the money for the drink was. I had previously told him I had not brought any more money with me, so I joked with him saying I was being honest when I said I had no more money earlier. He shyly smiled and told me that he was kidding. I gave him a hug, thanked him for the drink and said goodbye.

As we left, a guy said “Wow, I feel bad for that guy. That’s a poor outcome for a guy who buys a girl a drink”. I instantly felt my blood boil and asked “What exactly did I owe him?” to which the guy said “I am just saying if i’m a guy buying a girl a drink, and all I get from it is a hug, that’s a poor outcome”. Some of the girls at that point took me away from the conversation as they sensed my anger. I instantly felt diminished and devalued. That even as a woman who prides herself in not taking advantage of free drinks, I was still in the wrong. Even though I never asked for the drink, I was in the wrong. Even though all I did was smile and laugh with the waiter and ended the flattery with a friendly thank you and a hug, I was in the wrong because that is “all” I did – give a hug. To someone I did not know. Who gave me one Mojito.

I was happy to hear one of the other guys on the trip respond by saying “What about not expecting anything from a girl just because you buy her a drink”. The helpless and devalued feeling part of me thanked him for saying words I was too angry to say. One of the other guys looked at me, seemingly knowing how upset I was, and offered me a cigarette. Almost as a “Im sorry that just happened”. With that I grabbed the cigarette, and walked ahead of the group with one other girl by my side.

Turns out, this was the night that girl and I became best of friends on the trip.

In addition to being a female traveller, is also interesting being a solo female traveler. There seems to be this underlying expectation as a female solo traveller on a group trip, that you will eventually “hook up” with someone. Friendliness is mistaken for flirting and you eventually find yourself talking about your relationship in order to establish that you are not looking for a fling or cheating partner of some kind during your travels. I do not believe it is important to state I am in a relationship right off the bat on a trip. I mention it when it is appropriate or fitting to a conversation. My relationship does not define me, therefore it is not something I mention during my introductions. “Hi, i’m Jess and I am in a relationship” does not feel like an introduction that really lets people know who I am. Throughout the trip, it was interesting seeing how different people responded to discovering that I was in a relationship. The people who responded appropriately, were the people I found by the end of the trip I was closest to because it was not something they defined me by. It was just another detail about me.

Being a queer woman on a trip is always interesting as well. Again, I do not yell from the mountain tops that I am in a lesbian relationship. This is for many reasons. 1. Safety 2. It’s not really that important 3. People get really confused when I say I am in a relationship with a woman, but also express attraction to men. Bi-sexuality is still a very foreign and stereotyped concept and truthfully, sometimes I just don’t feel like explaining or justifying it.

By the end of the trip there was a lot of conversation around who hooked up with who (or tried to) and who was single or in a relationship. To be perfectly honest, it was easy for me to fall into these conversations as well. It was interesting that this was a consistent theme throughout the eight days.

It was also apparent that feelings of safety among the women and men were significantly different. The women on the trip did not feel safe walking the streets on their own during the trip. It was nearly unheard of for the women to walk down the street and not be whistled at or cat called in Spanish. In some situations, men would stop their cars in the middle of traffic just to yell things at us. I also got asked if I was married by a staff and hit on by two other staff while trying to enjoy zip lining.  Several of the women were frustrated and frightened by this. I felt privileged that I was not a woman who felt frightened or intimidated by men engaging in these actions. In some situations, I was rather tempted to yell “Dejame en paz!” (leave me alone!). Having said this, at night I always ensured a buddy system for myself, as well as, the other women. There was even one situation where one of the girls went out on her own to the beach and had not returned by the evening. Myself and one of the other girls on the trip were laying in hammocks discussing if we should go look for her, until we heard her say “Guys, I’m right here reading my book! But thank you for the concern” from the other hammock. We then all laughed about the search party that almost searched for the person who was sitting in the hammock right next to the people organizing the search party. One of the girls at the end of the trip said I “took on a motherly role for everyone” (theres that social work nature again…).

The inequality of women during solo-travel became apparent to me once again since my last trip abroad. It was a reminder that women experience travel in a very different way than men and that there is still a large amount of work to be done around this. In addition, I recognized the difference it makes when other men voice when women around them are being objectified by other men. This can have a positive impact on the decreased feelings of safety experienced by the women, and address the devaluing societal norm allowing this objectification to occur in the first place.

Reflection Six: Unlikely Friends 

Part of the reason I enjoy group trips, is because I get to meet new people. However, as much as I like to think I am not one to judge others, I sometimes do. I think part of this is natural for people to do as a innate survival instinct.

One individual in particular, I did not see myself ever building a relationship with. In fact, early on in the trip I had called him pessimistic after he had made a number of sarcastic comments. Looking back on the situation, I was cranky, hungry and needed to go to bed. It wasn’t a fair judgement as I only knew the guy for 48 hours. However, I said it. And we didn’t really speak until closer to the end of our trip, when all of a sudden we had a very honest and real conversation about career paths, mental health, addictions and happiness in life. What was even more interesting, was the person who I had thought I had the least amount in common with, I spent the whole last day of my trip with and, we spoke the entire day. I even decided to travel with him to the airport and wait at the gate with him where we continued to talk until his departure, as my plane departed an hour later. We ended things with a hug and well wishes for each others travels.

I left the situation thinking how happy I was that I decided to sit on the beach with that individual. I later on in the trip actually apologized to him for calling him pessimistic, because I truly was.

I also find it interesting how some people just click naturally – like two souls that say “Hey! We like each other”. There were a select few people who I found this connection with and who I was appreciative to have met – even more interestingly, they had a connection with each other as well.

All in all, it was interesting how my relationships with people on the trip in some situations changed so drastically in one week. People who I initially connected with, I later found drifting in a different direction. People I did not talk to until the end of the trip, I later wished I had done so sooner and some people felt like we had been friends long before meeting in Costa Rica.

Reflection Seven: A Piece of Pizza (A short story)

A group of friends went to a pizza store to grab food for dinner. They brought their slices to a near by park to eat.

The one friend noticed when she chose the spot to sit, that there was a man sitting a few feet away. She did not mind and continued to begin eating her dinner. Her friends joined her.

All of a sudden, more and more men joined the one man originally sitting by himself. Each watching the girl and her friends as they passed. Within minutes, the group of one man turned into a group of eight. The one girl started feeling like something “off” was happening. Her heart started racing and her street smarts were telling her this may not be a good situation. She asked her friends if they wanted to move spots. Everyone said they were fine. “Maybe I’m over exaggerating – everything is probably fine” she thought to herself. So they stayed, and continued eating their pizza. Out of the corner of her eye, the girl noticed that the group of men continued to look at her and her friends while speaking to each other.

A few minutes later, a man from the group came forward and said to the girls one friend “Im hungry. Buy a lollipop so I can go buy a slice of pizza”. The friend said “No”. The man became a bit more forceful and replied “Man, I’m hungry! I want to eat! Give me money so I can buy a slice”. The friend again replied, “No”.

The girl sensed that something was happening, as the men in the other group began speaking to each other again and looking at her friend. Some of them began moving slowly towards the friend, ever so slightly as not to be noticed.

The girl interrupted her friend and the man asking for money and said “Are you hungry?”. The man looked surprised, and said “Yes”. The girl then looked at her pizza, and then looked at the man and said “Here, you can have my slice”. The man looked at her, and said no, that he didn’t want her slice. The girl again offered her slice, saying “I have already eaten today, take my slice”. With that, the man took her pizza, said thank you and went to his friends to share the slice. The man then walked away from the group.

After a few moments, another man from the group walked forward to the girl and said “You’re too humble miss. That was really nice of you. Karma will come back to you for that good thing you did”. The girl thanked him, and the man returned to his group, calling her an angel.

The girl told her friends it was time to leave, said goodbye to the men and everyone went their separate ways.

Although this story had a happy ending, the alternative outcome may not have been as positive.

When the girl told someone else what had happened in the park that day, they said that the man called her an angel for a reason. The girl was confused. The person said to the girl, the reason the man wanted her friend to buy a lollipop was so that he would pull out his wallet. The reason so many men joined the group was so that they would be able to steal the wallet and no one would be able to do anything because the friend would have been outnumbered. The person explained, that when she offered the pizza without thinking twice, it caught the man off guard because in that moment, it was not a thief vs. her friend. It was a human talking to a human. And in that moment, humanity and kindness spoke louder than the need for theft. The person explained that the girl was called an angel, because most likely if it had not been for her interrupting, her friend would have been robbed.

The girl left the conversation feeling like there was something bigger than her in that situation. Why did she choose to sit on that step in the park? Why did the men choose to approach them specifically? And, why did she choose to buy pizza in the first place?

So that a human heart, could touch another humans heart.

Reflection Eight: Thank You Costa Rica!

I always thank a country I have visited for my experiences while travelling within it.

Thank you Costa Rica for your delicious food. I enjoyed many meals full of rice, beans and eggs. Churros and tacos. Cilantro and Avocado. Imperial beer. The best Mojitos I have ever had. And carbs – lots of delicious carbs.

Thank you Costa Rica for being the country to introduce me to my first time in the ocean. Thank you for your beautiful, warm salt water and sandy beaches. Thank you for your shells and coral. Thank you for the waves (which truthfully were scary for someone who had never been in the ocean before). Thank you for the palm trees.

Thank you Costa Rica for all the activities I did. Thank you for the hot springs. Thank you for the waterfalls I was able to rappel. Thank you for the zip lining and for the winding roads we drove up and down through the mountains.

Thank you Costa Rica for your people who work hard and smile often. Thank you for everyone who was kind to me, and everyone who taught me lessons. Thank you for all the people who made an impact on my life.

Thank you Costa Rica for your cities, your rainforests and your coasts.

Thank you Costa Rica, for having me as a visitor. Mucho Gusto.

 

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