In March of 2011 I traveled to Costa Rica to escape the chaos of Dallas and swim in the warm, green waters of the Pacific Ocean, peer into steaming volcanoes and immerse myself in one of the friendliest cultures in all of the Americas. I planned to travel alone, but what began as a solo trip quickly morphed into a social adventure. Saturday morning, during a layover at Miami International Airport, I met a Harvard MBA student named Faith who, like me, was traveling alone to Costa Rica. We agreed to visit a volcano together the next day, and Faith invited me to join her and the rest of her friends when they arrived later in the week.
Meeting Faith set in motion a chain of events that introduced me to a platoon of boisterous Harvard MBA students, occasioned a whitewater rafting trip on the Chirripó River in the Costa Rican rainforest, and made possible an overnight stay in Manuel Antonio, a small town on the Pacific coast where the rainforest stands tall and Capuchin monkeys leap about high in the canopy before swinging to the ground eager to observe people observing them. Here, in Manuel Antonio, cliffs loom high over the Pacific, rocks thrust out of the green water like fins of ancient sea monsters frozen in time, and waves crash against the rocks and cliffs in their perennial quest to prove the dictum that nature is both patient and persistent in its pursuits, and that nothing, not even the hardest stone, outlasts eternity.
Manuel Antonio, Pacific Ocean
I enjoyed the three days I spent with the Harvard crew. Their numbers included six men and three women. Seven came originally from India; one, Faith, from the Philippines; and one from St. Louis. I laughed with them. I joined in conversation about health care, auto insurance, education, love, power, fame, and ambition. With Gaurav, paddling on the Chirripó River, I felt like I forged the sort of bond that only shared physical exertion affords. I’ve never been around such raucous laughter and fluid conversation, in which some set of unspoken rules governs the group’s collective behavior. Everyone gets a hearing. Everyone understands that most, though not all, of the topics of conversation fall in the category of banter and so merit a degree of lightness and jocularity befitting banter.
El Volcán Arenal
Yet at times I felt like the outsider I in fact was. I’m a school teacher, not a Harvard MBA, by which I don’t mean to signal any sort of elitism on the part of my companions. They were kind people, and they graciously included me in their group. They simply exist in a different world. They strive after different goals. Drive and discipline as much as intelligence explain the trajectory of their lives. As a group they share circumstances and experiences that only members of their group would understand.
When the loner in me took over, I left the group and wandered the beach at sunset. I talked with local restaurant owners and beach bums. Enrique, an extreme biking aficionado who bore all over his body the scars of his pastime, compared relationships to “la guerra” and marveled at the power women have over men. Late in the evening, still in Manuel Antonio, I sat alone on the beach and sipped a bottle of Imperial beer. I breathed in the heavy salt air and stared at the surf rolling in. The whites of the breaking waves glowed phosphorescent in the moonlight. Palm trees cast shadows across the white moonlit sand and boats winked their lights at me from the sea.
The Central Highlands Near San José
In Costa Rica I wove in and out of different worlds: physical worlds, social worlds, internal and external worlds. In a span of three days I was a loner wandering aimlessly in a foreign country; I was a school teacher laughing and singing American rock classics with Harvard MBA students; I was a foreigner talking in Spanish with a local about the travails of relationships, or with a restaurant owner about his road trip seventeen years ago through the western United States. I was also a nobody sitting on a moonlit beach with eyes closed, listening to the ocean whose roar cancels out everything else in existence and becomes the one true thing in this world.
The Harvard Crew
In case there was any danger of my remaining in the trance I had fallen into on the Rich Coast, soon after I returned to DFW reality served up a dose of the harsh truths that govern our day-to-day lives, the truths that society determines and perpetuates. At school on the Monday after my trip, in the course of a conversation about careers and goals, one of my most thoughtful and perceptive students asked, “What profession could be lower than teaching?” The ocean may roar in Costa Rica, but whatever truth it contains remains hidden from view here in the big city. It’s around here somewhere, but you have to look pretty hard to find it.
Central Highlands, near San JoséSerene park inside the ruins of the the cathedralBird of Prey near el Volcán Arenal
Ruins of a Cathedral in Cartago, near San José
Serene park inside the ruins of the the cathedral
Bird of Prey near el Volcán Arenal