Chapter 1: The Quest for Pura Vida · Chapter 2: The Way Less Traveled By

(and all that jazz)

The other day I told a Costa Rica story to a girl I don’t know well.  I actually took myself a bit by surprise since I don’t tend to bring up my year abroad as much.  Costa Rican adventures are somehow being replaced by tales of scholarship applications and volleyball practices, by plans with my best friend and literature essays I enjoy writing.

Even as I told the story, I grimaced a bit.  The girl was entranced, which is not common–usually people are wowed by the idea of me living in another country for a year, but once that wears off, they brush off the stories they can’t relate to and move on.  Even I treat the Costa Rica Experience as a string of shiny adventures interspersed with aching loneliness.  Which I guess it was–as is every other period in my life.

But funnily enough, those experiences aren’t what define my time abroad nowadays when I grow wistful.  It’s the stuffing in the cracks, the million deviations, the certain feeling a song gives me, that cause me to close my eyes if only to experience the shadow of a moment.

My dad and I have a similar way of telling stories.  Our stories stretch on and lose the point somewhere along the trivial byways we take.  We don’t tell linear stories; we tell web stories, because for him, a Texas Ranger’s physical description that conveys the degree of his nonchalance is a more important element of a novel plot summary than the events that occur, and I can’t resist retelling “you had to be there” jokes, even though they’re irrelevant to the story of how we won the volleyball game.

So this post will not be a story; it will be a series of unrelated moments that meant nothing but are everything to me.

  • It is nighttime and my host family has scattered from the house.  I’m sitting on my bed on the computer, either because I have no one to go out with, or because I’ve been so overwhelmed that boredom seems a reasonable price to pay for security.  The little black dog sits out in the hall at my host sister’s door and whines a bit, missing her I guess.  Eventually, I hear her claws clicking against the tile floor and she trots into my room, stops, and stares up at me expectantly.  She hesitates because my host mom, knowing my distaste for dogs, has frequently scolded her for hopping onto the couch with me–“¡Ghandi!  NO.”  and apologetically to me, “Ella es ‘stinkísima’.”  This time, though, my host mom isn’t here to scold her, and after a few seconds I smile a bit and pat the bed–“Venga, Ghandi.”  She immediately perks up and takes a couple of attempts to hop onto the bed, her advanced age slowing her down, and eventually makes it and lies down next to my leg.  I sigh as I think of the dog-stink that will now be ingrained into the bed cover, but her solid warm back presses against my calf, and it’s a bulwark against complete soledad.
  • As I walk up the long sidewalk, the one I walk at least once a weekday that links the two main sections of campus, my calves feel the burn of the steady incline.  I keep the left, in the shadow of the sidewalk’s roof, the shadow that has fled to the extreme side in the morning light.  I had gotten into the habit of shade hopping to try to keep my nose from being perpetually sunburned, and besides, the sun is hot on my black leggings.  I discretely throw glances at the boy’s soccer team practicing in the field to the right.  I’ve always had a thing for soccer players.  As I meet up with my gringo classmates, I watch the soccer player I know, the one who is also the trainer for the girls’ volleyball team I practice with, and I wonder if he has ever noticed me among the group of white people that congregates there for a few minutes before class twice a week.  I wonder if he notices how animated I am, laughing and joking in English, and if that surprises him when he contrasts it with my reserved and awkward demeanor at volleyball practice.
    Probably not.
  • I’m sitting on the tile of the patio at some cousin’s house in Guanacaste, talking about classic literature with a different cousin and his friend, and feeling increasingly ignorant and aware of how much literature I’m not familiar with, despite my love of reading.  Inside, the TV soccer announcer’s voice rises and gets increasingly excited, culminating in a loud “¡Goooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooool!  ¡gol!  ¡gol!  ¡gol!”  There’s loud exclamations and high fiving from the living room and my host brother runs out ripping his shirt off and jumps up to sit on the concrete wall in celebration that Heredia has scored a goal.  Then he calmly hops off and trots back into the house.  I don’t know what it is with soccer and guys ripping their shirts off in celebration, but anyone who watched the World Cup knows it’s a thing.
  • My host mom calls me into the kitchen for afternoon cafecito.  We sip our coffee–she doesn’t have to ask me if I want leche anymore–and the hot drink somehow tastes like home, even though I hardly ever drank coffee before coming to Costa Rica.  I eat wheat toast smeared with guava jelly and topped by a slice of mild white cheese, as usual, and my host mom eats toast with some questionable bean topping.  We don’t talk much–neither of us is really in the mood, and it would be difficulty anyway over the ruido of the rain pounding on the tin roof.  It’s not thundering–if it was, my host mom would be covering her ears and shrieking, and maybe running into her room to hide, but it’s enough to chase the big blind yellow dog Figo into the house, where he doesn’t belong.  My host mom attempts to coax him out, but he lays down, and she eventually gives up and lets him be.
  • I’m sitting in a common area in a hostel in Panama with a German friend eating the dinner we just cooked, pasta I think.  It’s nighttime, and noise and music drifts in from the town square or a nearby restaurant.  I pause our conversation as I recognize a few notes from “Let Her Go”, a song I had just discovered playing on every radio station during my month back home.  I excitedly ask my friend, “Do you know this song?”  He doesn’t, so I comment on how good it is and our conversation moves on.  The song, which I have been listening to on repeat, will remind me of winding through the mountains of Panama in a white van every time I hear it.
  • I’m sitting in a karaoke bar with a close friend of mine and some guy friends of his whom I don’t know well.  I’m a bit uncomfortable–although I feel safe with my friend, I wish I had some girl backup, because hanging out with just guys is a weird balance.  I want to sing, but I don’t know what, since I’m not yet brave enough to sing in Spanish, and the English music is mostly limited to slow songs that require some voice talent.  Out of nowhere, one of the guys hands me the microphone, says we’re singing “I Will Survive”, and that I’m lead singer.   He doesn’t know it, but this song is my mom’s favorite, and I smile and sing it like I’ve seen her sing it many times before.

There’s moments like these I’m afraid will escape forever because they’re not major plot points in my life.  How many are already gone?


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