Costa Rica : Travel Writing

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Don’t Fight the Ocean

Betsy Tampke

You are hot, sweaty, and tired when you finally reach the top of the cliff after hiking through the Costa Rican forest with three other girls on your two week study abroad trip and your tour guide, Valeria. You stare out at the ocean and wish you had brought your camera. As you are enjoying the scenery a hung over girl from the young group of Chilean tourists sitting at the edge of the platform starts to vomit. Valeria immediately begins talking to the girl and her friends rapidly in Spanish, and you understand enough of what they are saying to offer the girl your water. Her friends take it and pour your water down her back and on her thighs and into her throat, as she alternates between bowing her head in shame and rolling it onto the back of her neck in surrender.

It is strangely beautiful to watch, the three friends cooing words of comfort as they speak in frantic tones and tuck hair into her ponytail. Beautiful like the view from the top of the mountain they had sacrificed their bodies for: deep blue water jaggedly cut up by protruding cliffs, a sun that shines so bright on everything it’s hard to keep your eyes open. It’s hard to watch all that beauty.

The sweating, vomiting girl with the hands that didn’t belong to her, holding her all over, Costa Rica was beautiful like that.

Beautiful but vicious.

Vicious like the alligators that congregated below the cement high-way bridge you and your fourteen person group walked across, so you watch the gigantic pre-historic reptiles lazily snap at hot dogs far below you. Before you exited the bus Valeria told you that the alligator population is getting out of hand because not enough of the baby alligators are getting eaten before adulthood and also to be careful because on the bridge people get hit by busses and die.

Vicious like the volcano that erupted and wiped out the town of Arenal and all of the peasants who stayed and welcomed the lava because they didn’t believe it was coming. In a world like that, where the earth spits fire and the sky rains down giant rocks, you imagine it would be easy to believe in the spirits and devils that Valeria is convinced haunt her.

Viscous like the vines that Valeria explained to you as you walked through the cloud forest the other day: thin and flexible, but strong, they delicately creep up the base of trees, and once they reach the canopy they start to journey back to earth. They grow downward hanging as innocent as streamers, barely tickling the cloud forest floor. But once the roots find ground, they grip the earth with vengeance. They sink their teeth into its soft, spongy surface and enriched by the nutrients they suck from the floor, they grow stronger. Thicker. They expand. The once unassuming vine begins to crush the ancient tree that was its unsuspecting warden: slowly choking out its sunlight, compressing its vascular lifelines.

Defenseless the tree patiently waits for death. But even after its life has been successfully stifled the vine refuses to release it. It is held erect and birds make their homes in its rotting core. As time passes the tree grows too heavy, or perhaps it is the vine that grows weary, but either way eventually the dead trunk thunderously cracks away from its compressor and falls back to the earth it sprouted from. The birds loose their home, but as the tiny egg shells crack on impact, the forest floor embraces the trunk with more vines, flowers, and insects before it decomposes into the earth.


“Death is a necessity,” Valeria pointed out. “Death needs to happen to make room for new life. The next generation”

“You’re not afraid of death?” you asked.

“No,” she said. “No of course not, death is very natural.”

Yes, death is very natural. But this young Chilean girl’s isn’t. At least not today.

Valeria drops to her knees and starts to question the girls about what they drank the night before. Between convulsions of vomit she tries to convince the girl to nibble on a granola bar. She speaks to them in a tone of voice and conjugation structure that sound like instructions but you can’t be entirely sure.

You try to ignore the stench of stomach contents basking where they don’t belong and turn away from the conversation you no longer understand. The thing that bothers you the most about the foreign language is the exclusion. You want to know what they are saying. You want to be a part of their idioms and their expressions. But despite practicing with José the bus driver all week and six years of Spanish your conversation skills are weak at best and you just don’t have the patience to learn the meticulous grammar rules and memorize vocabulary. Even though you don’t put in the time or have the talent to master the language, you want to be part of it anyway. You want to belong to it.

You want to belong to everything.

Even to the dull cliffs and shimmering ocean that dangle before you. You want to run bravely to the edge of the land and dive into the clear blue, swim circles in unity with clownfish and dolphins. The desire to be reckless is pulling you, like a rope around your stomach.

But you don’t move, you won’t follow the tug, because you don’t know the statistics but you are fairly certain a good amount of people die from cliff diving every year, and it’s not just clownfish and dolphins hiding below the surface of the water, it’s sharks and jelly fish too. And you aren’t that great of a swimmer anyway. Remember swim team in your childhood summers? You were terrible at that.

So knowing your incompetent, unfit, and unable you don’t jump off the cliff and you don’t join in the conversation happening two feet from you. But being so damn practical, it doesn’t stop the urges.

Every time you walk through a forest here you still long to be a piece of the rugged life that surrounds you: to tramp boldly off the trail and survive by drinking water from vines and eating plants José pointed out to you when your group explored the cloud forest.

Because the ocean, the nature, the animals, the untamed life, it all seems so beautiful, so natural, so right, so exactly what you have been missing in your previous existence. That is until your small group leaves the Chilean tourists behind to wander back into the forest, and howler monkeys start screaming at each other in their strange, hollow voices. Everyone else around you is excited and enthralled as they shade their eyes and gaze up eagerly at the tree tops, but you look at the ground and search for escape routes incase things get ugly. Because the monkeys are fascinating and exotic, but they are also well… wild monkeys! They are wild monkeys, and you hardly know anything about monkeys except that chimps can learn sign language and one time on the Travel Channel a tourist got his face mauled when he tried to take a picture with one. You don’t speak monkey and you don’t know which noises mean “I’m happy” or “My tree branch” or “You! With the brown curly hair and empty water bottle in your backpack! I’m coming for you and I want to scratch your face off!”

So you watch the monkeys and you don’t complain but your heart is racing and your body is tense. You know the monkeys are exciting and they will make a great anecdote when you return home, we were walking through the forest and then suddenly these monkeys started screaming at each other! But you can’t help but think maybe you would be a little more interested, and comfortable watching the monkey yell from the security of an air-conditioned basement with the Animal Planet logo in the corner of your field of vision and no risk of face deformities.

You didn’t mean that. That was a terrible thing to say. You like the monkeys, you really do. You’re glad you get to see them. You just wish they didn’t scare you.

Eventually, thank God. The group grows weary of the monkeys and you continue your hike through the forest towards the beach, where you will join the rest of your classmates.

The forest in the national park is beautiful and bursting with life, but nowhere near as overwhelming as the cloud forest was two days ago.  As José walked beside you and tried to explain the jungle in patient, steady Spanish, you were determined to remember every wild life fact, to appreciate the diverse types of trees and minuscule differences between species of flowers and butterflies. You wanted to make sense of it, but with your untrained eyes all you saw was bark, leaves, flowers, and spider webs. Still, you kept your eyes wide open the whole time and regretted every blink because you wanted to soak it all in. You wanted to spend an hour standing in one spot and letting your eyes feast on the parallel life that was occurring on the forest floor, undergrowth, and canopy layer.

You felt consumed by life and you wanted to consume it in return. You were convinced if you could consume the life that was consuming Costa Rica your craving for consumption could finally be quelled. But you were slowly learning you couldn’t consume it all, and even if you could, it wouldn’t keep you filled; and by the time Jose tried to explain to you how to find tarantulas in the brush your brain felt saturated and gluttonous anyway.

You were overwhelmed by the all encompassing, over-powering, incomprehensible life. So many different kinds of life, so little of which you understood. Or anyone understands really. But you could see that each was fighting for survival, helping and hindering fellow life participants on its way. With all this life and all these dangers it felt alarming that you even existed. That you could even come to exist amongst all of this life. But you did, and you are, you are life just like the tree’s and the spiders and maybe if you tried hard enough you could be a natural part of it again.

And there’s that nagging feeling again. That desire to belong to it.

You want to belong to Costa Rica like the everything in Costa Rica belongs to each other. It all melts into one entity: the valleys bleed into the mountains under a rippling blanket of grass, bushes, and trees; the forests brush shoulders as they slowly transform from temperate to cloud; even the land thirsts for the sky as it boldly scratches at the heavens and they return the gesture by welcoming the mountain peaks in with perpetual cold, wet embraces.

Embrace me! you think.

But the life can’t. You’ve come so far from what you were designed to be that life doesn’t recognize you anymore.


You try but your muscles are weak from lack of use and the sound of harmless monkeys make your shoulders tense.

It leaves you tired and inexplicably frustrated.

Like watching a girl vomit in the heat. It’s sickening.

Sickening like the heat when your exhausted body finally reaches the beach again. You set down your backpack by the collage of familiar towels left by your classmates. The forest trickles into the beach so even though they are distinctly different it is difficult to tell exactly where one ends and the other begins. The forest encroaches on everything in Costa Rica: reforestation movements make it brush up against hotels and work as living fences in people’s fields. Of course, the forests bring wildlife with it. How beautiful, you think as you stare out at the ocean, for humans and other creatures to live in unity again.

Then you twist to reach for the sunscreen in your backpack and find the howler monkeys have returned, they are fiddling with the zipper on your bag. You are so weary of the monkeys that at first you contemplate just letting them have it, possessions are so blurred in Costa Rica anyway, you wonder if it was ever really yours to begin with.

The people live together here, all striving for a common goal: mutual success. Or that’s what they say anyway. In your Spanish class you learned that Americans, like yourself, see themselves primarily as individuals and then secondly as members of groups, but in Central and South American countries their self perception is exactly opposite: they are members of groups first and distinctly themselves second. Everyone here is first and foremost, a Tico. Even in their need, even as Valeria explains her glasses are crooked from repeated falls and she needs knee surgery but she is waiting for the government run health-care to have room for her.

“I am not the most important need,” Valeria said. “The doctors will call me and tell me when it is time for me to get a surgery but other people need things more.”

You pitied her and her Tico-ness,

“You see as an American,” you said. “I would think, ‘If I have the money, then I can pay for my surgery and I should be able to get it when I want to. It doesn’t matter if someone else needs one, if I can pay I should be able to get it.’”

You thought she would envy your freedom.

But instead she said, “I can’t believe you just said that.”

Maybe she pitied you more.

The monkeys look like they might actually succeed in opening up your bag so you try to shoo them away but your non-committal gestures are characterized by a definitive half-heartedness. You think about how confidentially your float trip guide, Alanzo, howled at the monkeys in aggression when you glided down the Costa Rican river. He wanted to put on a good show for you so you would tip him well and he could feed his three little girls, or maybe he just liked you. You try to be more like Alanzo and confidently approach the monkeys but they barely grant you a sideways glance as if to say, “yeah, right.” Even the monkeys can sense that you don’t know what you are doing. The monkeys can always sense it.

You look around you and find someone who the monkeys take more seriously, so that she can sort out the problem. It feels a little like defeat, like when you attempted to speak Spanish at the market but you said mochilo instead of mochila and the vendor laughed at you.

After the monkeys are gone and sunscreen has been smeared across you, you lay down thinking you might just be content to sun bathe. But it is so hot. Unbelievably hot. Impossibly hot. And when you stare out beyond the coast, you feel the urge to sit on the horizon. It’s safer on the shore, but the recklessness is pulling again.

As you approach the cold and unfamiliar ocean, you remember the instructions Valeria gave the group before you exited the bus.

“Don’t fight the ocean,” she said. “Never fight with the ocean. The ocean always wins.”

Logically you know that is true but it hardly seems plausible when the water gently collides with your feet as it crawls up on shore.

The ocean keeps running away from you on the sand, which only beckons you closer. It makes you hunger for more ocean. Wait come back.

And it does. And it doesn’t. The water returns but it is different. Well, it’s the same, but it is different. The new bits of water seem similar to the old but they’ve never met your feet before. The ocean rocks like traveling: as soon as you get used to the sensation it is gone and another swells up to take its place.

Maybe you should take a hint and let the ocean leave, but you don’t. You pursue the water that grew weary of you, even as it retreats into the deeper stranger mass. Now your knees are bracing themselves against white foam. Up close the ocean isn’t as comforting as it was from the mountain or when it barely touched your ankles. It threatens to knock you down and tests your footing: it’s when you try to go running in San Jose and get lost in an unfamiliar neighborhood, it’s when proud men of the machismo culture whistle at you like a dog, it’s when you can’t immediately figure out how many colones are the appropriate price for blocks of natural sugar and if dos mil cincuenta for two is a better deal than un mil treinta is for one.

Combined with its size and its unknown, the ocean is down right terrifying. It makes you look back at the land you started to leave behind and wonder if it might not be better if you simply returned and sat along the shore. But every time the ocean knocks you back, it also pulls you forward. And you are convinced that if you only understood it more it wouldn’t seem so strange.

So haphazardly you stumble even further forward and surrender everything but your head to the current. Once the ocean has a fuller taste of you it seems to want you a little less. In equal and less aggressive turns it pushes and pulls you occasionally rising up in front of you, forcing you to decide if you want to sink or swim. Defy or assimilate. Assimilate or defy. You’re not sure which is which.

It’s peaceful once you get this deep. With your eyes closed and arms outstretched and face rocked back towards the sun. You feel at one with the ocean, like you have a strange comradeship with all of the fellow ocean dwellers who swim near your legs below the surface. It seems so grossly unjust that you were born to shopping malls and barren fields when others get to belong here. Maybe you could belong here too.

But then you hear a man and women speaking Spanish to each other mere feet from you. It somehow seems wrong that someone else, a couple no less, should be allowed in your ocean. You become aware that you are not alone, that you can be viewed, and that to everyone else you are just a pale tourist slowly entering an unfamiliar sea.

Then ocean stops being a metaphor of your life and becomes an actual part of your life. The currents seem dangerous instead of comforting and the creatures swimming close below aren’t comrades but threats.

And no matter how much you try, you really don’t belong here.

And the rope is back again but this time it is anxiety and not desire for acceptance that pulls you from all of the undiscovered adventures and potential of a strange sea.

You dive under one last time and try to free yourself form the uneasiness the sweet nothings that the lovers crooned to each other brought you, but you can’t.

Your life is not a poem.

“Don’t fight the ocean,” she said.

You don’t intend to, but which, exactly, is the ocean you should stop fighting?