Costa Rica, Spring 2016

Some stories, like the one below, are too long for our print edition and too good to cut.   This first person narrative combines some of the best elements of travel writing with the energetic rush of a young mind opening.

Costa Rica, Spring 2016, by Elizaberh Hua …

The skies were blue, brushed lightly with clouds and promise, on February 27, 2016. The spring break stretched and yawned, as nine Rosemere High School students and two of their teachers hastily scratched at check lists. Bags of “essentials” were then hauled into humming automobiles and driven to the Montreal Pierre-Elliot Trudeau International Airport. Farewells were brief and warm; customs were smooth. With only one transfer, we dined at the Newark Airport in New Jersey and then slept in the belly of a metal bird. Costa Rica bobbed on the horizon of our dreams.

The country was nestled between shorelines, and as the doors sighed open, warmth permeated everything. Our guide waited out front, a massive sign across which our school name shimmered in thick black sharpie danced between his fingertips. He was tall and smiled like a monkey in the early morning light, a genuine optimist and enthusiast called Brian. Our driver was Santiago, a bear of a man whose heart was larger than three fists. Hours were spent travelling from one destination to the next. The countryside of banana plantations and colorful, crude housing structures rolled by as the group dozed peacefully against windows and across empty seats. I laughed with the two Costa Ricans whose home I was to uncover. My sister merely bowed her head to repress the qualms of motion sickness.

Our tour began with nature. Waterfalls spewed over jagged cliff faces, and steps spiraled through the wildlife reserve of Le Paz Waterfall Gardens. We met colorful birds, primates, felines, serpents, insects, and even a pair of oxen. The misty air was lighter than the cloud forest we would soon explore. The food was plentiful and fresh. Fruit and Gallo Pinto, the famed rice and beans dish, infiltrated our every meal. Breakfast superseded friendly games of volleyball and hacky sack, and thus was the moment we learned to count in Spanish.

As the days went by, our love for the tropical country grew. The first hotel was a bed and breakfast isolated by tall fencing for safety. The wooden flower keychains for our rooms were lugged around humorously, weighing down pockets during foosball tournaments and late-night sessions of Werewolf. During the day, we went kayaking and snorkeling. We bought fresh coconuts from a man with a rather large knife, indulging in the sweet flesh and juices before donning the gear of a zip-liner. A wild almond warmed my pocket.

As we soared through the trees, leagues above the world, howler monkeys screamed. The sun set slowly, shouldering darkness like a cloak. The guttural cries grew louder and more frightening as we climbed ladder after ladder into infinite freedom and untold nothingness. Exhilaration breathed softly against our helmets.

We grounded. Awaiting the second group, the ocean was tumulus. Waves were slate, crashing and roaring like the ghosts of fallen gargoyles. Crabs skirted into sand pockets as rain showered from the heavens. I had never felt such rawness, such power, or such magnificence. It was as if the gods themselves conducted the storm.

We ate fruit under the canopy of trees and thatch. Small lights on either side of the wood plank path led us through the night like an escort of myth. Magic wafted from the scarlet petals of a hibiscus rescued from the shore. It weighed nothing against my palms, more delicate than love, more intense that the pitter-patter of water droplets.

My sister and I turned sixteen the following day, as the sun hovered warmly overhead. The morning was spent at a sloth sanctuary, where we were able to observe the habits and particularities of various species. A canoe ride through the river exposed us to other wildlife, including spider monkeys, birds, bats, and blue Morpho butterflies.

After a long day on the road, we were invited beneath the roof of a local family. Dona Fantine and her sister taught us the art of patacones making. We each took turns flattening the already fried green plantains so they could be refried and salted, like a chip. She offered wonderful lemonade and coffee, along with a bean paste. The over-crowded kitchen was comfortable. Mismatched cutlery was passed around as the distant laughter of children flooded the front room. They brought us a cake, the best I had ever eaten, then Santiago fashioned us a balloon flower and a balloon heart. He had spent the entire previous evening in practice, having secretly organized the celebration with Brian. Song and drunken ecstasy were soap bubbles, smothering me in love. Though nearly seven thousand kilometres from my world, I was home.

Our second hotel was hidden in a forest just off of the main road. We wandered the labyrinthine layout, suitcases in tow, until shouting beckoned us back to the main office. Our rooms were just above the reception, in a hallway with only one other guest. It was in the whicker seats before the heavy metal gates that Brian and Santi conducted our beloved Spanish lessons.

Late that night, we swam beneath the stars. Insects hummed, and the ring of flora whispered with the breeze, sharing secrets of a dislocated past. Our footprints were tattoos on the walkway leading to our rooms. Moisture kissed the wood like a forbidden promise.

The following morning commenced as early as usual. After a satisfying buffet breakfast, we made our way to La Selva Biological Station, a haven for researchers and students. As we hiked past the suspension bridge and into the rainforest, our guide cradled a wondrous magnifying instrument by Swarovski. We paused regularly to observe faraway birds and monkeys. A herd of Collard peccaries ambled across the path and into the ravine. Common basilisks – better known as Jesus Christ Lizards - and farmer ants speckled the undergrowth and competitive plant life. The air itself seemed to breathe. Vines dangled overhead, and buttress roots protruded like snakes in the dampened earth. Rubber even blossomed from the bark.

Next on the agenda was a farming destination. We journeyed through the dirt streets, past fields and fields of crops, until we reached a semi-barren plot stretching into the horizon. The man who had acted as a translator and supervisor at Dona Fantine’s house awaited us with shovels, water, and saplings, which were then distributed and carried further into the property. The plants would serve as a substitute habitat for species whose forests were razed. With fingertips ingrained with soil, our group was able to plant seventy trees. The sun was blistering and relentless, and worms inched over knuckles, struggling to re-enter the damp underbelly of a parched land. In that moment, I was connected to the world. I was part of the cycle, and I realized that humans were not made to destroy but to create, to inspire, and to love. My contribution made a difference. I made a difference, and it was a difference I could never forget.

Once we emerged from the soon-to-be green giant, Santiago brought us back to the hotel for a quick change of clothing. We were to raft in the Sarapiqui River. The experience was like leaping into a sea of wonder. The skies turned grey as lifejackets and helmets were passed around. After paying for a photo package and observing a brief demonstration, we divided into two groups and boarded the rafts. Our guide tossed a whole pineapple in after us.

My sister and I led our team. Shouting Uno! Dos! in unison, we cut through the white rapids and black currents. Water glugged over the plastic edges, spraying our faces and shirts. Everything was peacefully wild. A vulture leered from a fallen branch. Children bantered atop a stone bank, quiet only as our laughter cut the air.

After an hour, we were steered to a bank. I thought we had finished, but people raced up the craggy rocks. They kept shouting ridiculous notions of cliff jumping. Music blared – or perhaps it was our own screams. My teacher was the first to brave the twelve foot drop. My friend followed in suit. Without much thought, caught up in the sheer devilry, I leapt next. It took an eternity to hit the water.

The current dragged us along until our guides pulled us back to shore. After a second rush of insanity, chunks of fresh pineapple were distributed. Chins still dribbling with sticky juices and eye glasses still quivering from the plunge, we rearranged ourselves in the rafts and paddled our way back to Point A. Santiago greeted us with towels.

Our final day in Costa Rica was marvelous. In the morning, we visited a cocoa farm and chocolate factory to learn of the ancient process introduced by the Aztecs and perfected by the Europeans.  We observed each stage, from picking to roasting to fermenting, and tasting was encouraged. Ten roasted cocoa beans served us each as bartering agents, wealth from long ago.

A massive suspension bridge led us back to the van. Trees gawked and birds shuffled as the river rushed below our feet. Soft winds ushered us to our next destination: the school. Small children in uniforms smiled shyly as we walked to the courtyard to paint their grids a caution yellow. Newspapers were scattered across the cement flooring, held down by chunks of broken concrete and rocks.

The number of English signs spread about the school surprised me. Although the children spoke the language rather poorly, I knew it would not be long before fluency became second nature. As the lunch bell rang, we were brought bagged lunches, melon, and juice, and all the students rushed to meet us.

Abandoning the food, we were able to fully interact with the young Costa Ricans. They taught us to dance, and we, in turn, showed them various songs both with and without the jump rope. Our Spanish lessons finally paid off as well, though we played more than we conversed. Throughout the evening, even long after bidding farewell, I could still see smiles. The children had left a lasting impression of joy.

A trip to the mall preceded the last supper. Atop an enchanted hillside towering over the city, we sampled various dishes and were entertained by a traditional song and dance. The restaurant was crowded with people from all over the world, yet happiness was somber. We would most probably never see Brian, our crazy bird fanatic, or Santiago, our quiet paternal figure, again. As they brought us to the airport, tears were respectfully disregarded.

Costa Rica was an adventure grander and more invigorating than I could have ever imagined. Away from normality and worry, I was able to discover myself and a world of hidden splendour. People did not desire wealth. Happiness was instead found with family and with nature. Even time ambled like a fog, irrelevant and unhurried in its procession. As a collective, the students of Rosemere pledged to return, determined never to forget the country of greenery and interdependence.