Our flight to Bogota was short, but I was happy to land. This was to be a two-day excursion, in a city that was notorious for violence and danger for most of my life, but has since grown safer, cleaner, and more navigable for tourists. It was my first step into South America, and also, it turns out, the highest point I had ever been to on land. My ears did not pop or unpop, but I was greeted with a slight shortness of breath whenever I ascended a flight of stairs or even went up an elevator. The weather was correspondingly temperate, and I took to wearing my sweatshirt in the evenings, though days were warm with highs in the mid-70s. We arrived at our hotel in the Parque 93 neighborhood, which was an upscale, modern section of the city’s northernmost reaches. The hotel had a heated pool on the top floor, which we rushed to immediately. Overlooking the city, and the mountains on this new continent, I enjoyed the leisure time, but eager to explore. At sunset, we walked a dozen blocks or so south of our hotel, to a restaurant called “Local by Rausch.” In a cozy, upscale atmosphere, this restaurant and bar offered appetizers based on Colombian favorites, and we ordered the empanadas and arepas along with the local Club Colombia beer.
The following morning, a Saturday, we attempted to see as much as we could of Bogota, as it seemed like all the city’s tourist attractions were on the complete opposite end of town, about thirty minutes away. We took Uber there and back, as I had heard of taxi cabs kidnapping tourists, and found each ride to be safe, professional, and affordable. We started at the free Fernando Botero museum, which housed over a hundred of the artist’s paintings, as well as a couple of Picassos and some other Spanish-speaking artists. Afterward, we strolled just a few blocks to the grand Plaza Bolivar, which reminded me of the Grand Place in Brussels. From there, we walked to the Museo del Oro, which likely had thousands of pre-Columbian gold trinkets and tools. We spent a couple of hours learning about the history of gold’s role in the indigenous cultures of what is now Colombia.
After walking around the museum, we were naturally ready to sit and take a rest. We found a cafe and got coffee and juice made of lulo (a fresh orange-like fruit with a lime-like taste). Our final destination for the day was Montserrate, a tall mountain that forms the eastern boundaries of the city. This mountain, which can be ascended by foot, cable car or funicular, has a small market, a church with a shrine, and impressive views at the top for any tourist looking to make the journey. We purchased round-trip cable car tickets, and first made a stop in the church. Next, we wandered through the market, buying all kinds of little snacks. My favorite was a slab of a wet cheese that was topped with caramel and a strawberry spread. We also ate tamales, plantains, and local Colombian ‘champagne’ soda, which for the uninitiated is more like a cream soda. With the remainder of an afternoon left, I sat in a Parque 93 McDonald’s catching up on my journaling as the neighborhood kids tried to sell me light-up Christmas toys.
That evening, our last in Bogota, we walked twenty blocks down to the neighborhood of Zona Rosa. This four-block area is Bogota’s pub district, with dozens of upscale restaurants and ‘cervecerias’ scattered about. My mother expressed how she had a craving for seafood, so we walked into Central Cevicheria after wandering for a half hour around the neighborhood, comparing menus, and peeking into the various restaurants and bars. I ordered a plate of prawns and potatoes in a lemon sauce, but was not impressed. To drink, I ordered the surprisingly palatable “aguardiente,” which is the Colombian rendition of moonshine, with a couple bottles of Club Colombia to chase, one of which was mixed with a fruit juice into a “refajo” or shandy, not unlike the michelada with which we had started our trip in Mexico. We stumbled home and turned in early. The four countries of travel had likely caught up with us.
The following day, the only event we had scheduled was a 4 pm flight to Mexico City, from whence we would continue on to New York. We spent practically the entire day at the Bogota Botanical Garden, lounging amongst the trees, and I further caught up on my writing. The garden offered an array of different plants, from evergreen forests to the desert cacti of the Andes, and had a calming energy. I believed this to be the best way to conclude our nine-day Latin American expedition.
The quarter-full bus, which was scheduled to take two-and-a-half hours to get to the border, and another hour to get from the border to David, offered plenty of time and space in which to stretch out and enjoy the rainforest scenery. Until we approached the border, my parents’ first in Latin America, I did not know quite what to expect. We were quickly greeted by a freelance guide, reminiscent of my crossing into Laos, and I was actually quite glad. After all, the man knew we had a bus so he would not try to get us to ride in his likely overpriced cab. The crossing took awhile, as we had to have our bags examined, our departure tax paid, and our fingerprints scanned. When the guide said goodbye, I gave him a few coins I had in my pocket, and my parents, for some reason, gave him like twenty dollars in Colones and USD after I had already given the guy what I assume was a fair payment of 2 or 3 dollars. On the bus, my mother was happy to talk about how we “got scammed,” even though no one was making her give the guy a ten dollar bill from her purse. Regardless, their first real border-crossing could have been worse.
Back on the bus, we reconvened and my mother expressed her wish to board the next bus to Panama City as soon as we made it into the David terminal. I looked up the bus schedule, and found that there would be one leaving at 7:05, approximately an hour after we would arrive, and then continue on the 4 to 5 hour trek across the entire navigable length of the country to the capital.
Typically, I try to steer away from late-night bus rides. Avoiding arriving at a bus station at two in the morning in a foreign country is one of the ways I try to keep safe on the road, as well as how I maintain a sufficient sleep schedule seeing as I have not mastered the skill of vertical sleep. Regardless, this was my mother’s trip too, and she wanted to see Panama City, so we immediately bought three tickets at the terminal after arriving in David. With an hour and change, we found a fonda nearby, and sat down for a three-dollar meal that I thought was more delicious than anything we had had prior. We bought tender pork in a rich sauce, deep fried yuca, gallo pinto, and a delicious beet and potato salad. Cheap food, to be sure, but the meat was so tenderly cooked and stewed that it would make anyone question ever buying an expensive filet mignon or strip steak again. On the walk back the the station, the sun had begun to set, and it seemed a sort of market was thriving in the bus station. A cage the size of a Honda filled with tiny baby chicks sat amidst counter convenience stores hawking bottles of water, gum,and the like. We walked to the bus line waiting room, charged our phones, and booked our Panama City hotel for the night while we waited for the bus.
We boarded early, and the bus pulled out at 7:08. Our seats were in the lower part of the bus, which turned dark after pulling out of the station. A large flat screen TV was posted to the front, and loudly broadcast a Spanish version of the recently released film “Skyscraper,” wherein Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson plays an architect whose daughter is taken hostage in a skyscraper he designed. Halfway through the ride, which I was thoroughly enjoying with a row all to myself, the bus pulled to the side of the road. A man entered the lower cabin, made a quick announcement in Spanish which I was too dazed to try to translate, and left. No one in the seats nearby seemed too upset, so I figured we were only stopping for a quick break, perhaps to refuel. We waited for the rest of the movie, and my mom began to grow uneasy at the thought of potential “Panamanian terrorists” (her words). After the credits had rolled to completion on “El Rascacielo,” people from the cabin above began leaving the bus for a smoke. A few minutes later, another bus pulled up beside ours, and we were instructed to change buses. Over an hour had passed since our bus conked out, so it was clear it would be a later night than anticipated. As we left, I hoped against hope that I would have a row to myself on the new bus. When I boarded, toward the end of the line, it was clear this would not be the case. In fact, the bus was overbooked, and a family of five with three little kids was forced to share three seats. When I entered the bus, I had two options: to sit with a large Panamanian man, or with a skinny young Panamanian woman. Naturally, I sat next to the young woman quickly, determined to keep an eye out for a row to claim for myself, should the opportunity arise. The bus made several stops for people to disembark, but by the halfway point no rows had been left completely vacant. As we pulled into the rest stop at Santiago, I was pleased to see that this stop also had a large cafeteria-style hot bar and seating area, so I met my parents at the bus entrance, and we dined for twenty minutes on late night Panamanian sweets.
When the bus door opened, riders poured in, but I noticed that fewer were continuing onto this second leg. When I came to my now-vacant row, I smiled and hoped the girl who sat next to me had in fact disembarked for good. When the bus began backing up, I knew this was the case, and quickly assumed my crash position, despectacled head and back leaning against the wall and besocked feet resting softly on the aisle seat. My mind began to wander and my head rolled in preparation for unconsciousness. Quickly, however I was pulled awake as a teenager across the aisle came into my frame of vision and began asking me a question in Spanish that I could not quite make out. I asked him to repeat himself, and he did so in a hushed but quick tone, motioning to the seat, or perhaps my feet. I still couldn’t understand him, but I assumed he wanted the seat which I so desperately did not want to give him.
“Necesitas sentarse aqui?” I asked, pointing to the seat.
He nodded. I was pleased with this translation of my thought. I would give him the seat, but only if he needed it. He smiled and nodded, and I reluctantly moved my feet and shoes to my seat, and leaned my side against the window. Needless to say I was not at my happiest. I was on a delayed night bus, which I would typically avoid, and I couldn’t even get a row to myself because some kid didn’t want to sit with his mother. (It should be mentioned that the ‘kid’ in question might have even been my age, but was certainly no younger than 16 or 17. But if he were 27, I possibly would have called him a kid. I’ll happily call a millenial a kid if he or she is particularly ignorant-sounding or dumblooking. Or if they are on their phones scrolling through any of the ‘big 4’ social media apps. This is a total kid-move, even if the person in question is a millennial. In fact, I once got into trouble at a recent job I took as a cashier at a liquor store, when I was asked where a four-pack of beer had gone, and I had responded with “I sold it to some kids” who happened to be a group of 28-year-olds stopping at the liquor store ten minutes before close like there was an open house at Upsilon Gamma Eta. You ought to know, dear reader, that I can be a condescending prick.)
As I tried to dissociate my attention and attain the pre-sleep state I was in earlier, but quickly noticed that the kid was doing something weird. He had his torso covered with a thin fleece blanket and was making swirling motions with one of his fingers above his left shoulder, the one closest to me. I was distracted, but I figured nothing was completely out of the ordinary. After all, this was likely just his way of falling asleep, I thought. In a few seconds, he began touching the fleece harder from underneath, so much so that it began brushing against my arm, one, two, three times. I leaned closer to the window. Did he not notice? Perhaps he was already asleep, and he was somnambulantly moving his hand? I pulled my arms in tight, hoping he wouldn’t move closer. My hood was up, and my legs were crossed, but rather than ignore me, he began actively petting my arm and shoulder. There was now no doubt in my mind this was not an accident, but I froze in an icy dread. I had given him the aisle seat. There would be no clean getaway. This, whatever this was, was happening, and I was cemented in place. I glanced right, that is to say I was able to glance right, and my eyes met his. His eyes were cold and dead, like a zombie salivating over fresh meat. I shuddered at the sight. I shifted my weight, as I could not yet move from one place to another. At least he would know I was awake. At least he would know I didn’t want this, that I was uncomfortable. I had had nightmares like this before. Dreams in which there was nothing and know one intent on killing me, but wherein I was approached by people who just wanted to touch me and for some reason I could not escape. These dreams filled me with this same fear, the fear of being frozen, unable to act, incapable of exerting control over the situation. As I moved my body slightly from left to right, swaying but also creeping, ever so slightly, toward the window that I was already pressing myself against, the hand began slipping down to my thighs, and then cupping my rear. That was enough to provoke action. I swung my torso forward and began putting on my shoes. It felt like it had taken a whole minute to put the first one on, my left foot not even entirely in the shoe, but rather the back pressed down under my heel like a slipper. He was jabbing his hand like a spatula under me. “Why was he doing this?” I thought. I was failing to put the other shoe on. “Good enough,” I thought. I began putting the other shoe on, but the kid’s hand had made its way over my thigh to my crotch, and was now moving closer to my groin.
“Fuck it,” I thought.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” I stuttered in the likely incomprehensible language of English. “Doesn’t matter,” I told myself. “I just need to get out.”
I stepped over his spread legs with some difficulty, but I was wielding a shoe, and the bus was full of precariously sleeping passengers, so he did not make a fuss about me leaving. When I made it to the bathroom, I struggled at first to find the latch, and struggled for what felt like an eternity before a father, the same father who had three kids sitting near and on him, helped me open it. I jumped inside, closed the door, and took a profound breath. I thought about how I would get out of the bathroom, how I would get off the bus without meeting those cold eyes again.
I left the bathroom, and quickly walked through the aisle to the front of the bus where there was, thankfully, an empty row three or four seats behind my parents. What the hell had just happened? I felt so disgusting. Was I just assaulted? Or was that not the appropriate term? And what was he? An assailant? Just some guy? I thought over what I had said: “Necesitas sentarse aqui.” But if I had accidentally said “sentirse,” that could have meant “to come over,” and rather than a question, it could have come off as a statement or instruction. Had I invited him?
For the rest of the trip I was on high alert, simultaneously hoping this guy would get off at some crossroad, but also fearing that he would pass by me and I’d have to see him again. As the last hour passed on our ride into Panama City, I wished this had never happened, and that I could feel just a little less disgusted with myself than I did.
As we pulled in I met my parents at the front of the bus, and my mom followed me out. Needless to say, I was more than eager to get out of there, but I didn’t feel quite comfortable explaining what had happened. I said “let’s go,” in a kind of rushed sort of way. After all, my parents were in the front row. What did I have to worry about? My dad, it turns out. He decided that at nearly three in the morning, it was a good idea to play with his bag on the bus before disembarking, tightening straps and securing whatever the fuck someone with a mountain climber’s pack has to secure before making the daunting three-minute excursion down a ramp to a taxi stand. As soon as I saw him, my mother and I began descending the ramp. He saw us, he knew where to go, and I was getting out ASAP. At the bottom of the ramp, I argued with the taxi driver as there were no Ubers available, and got him to half his excessive charge of $20 to go about a mile to our hotel. When we got to our hotel, where a bunch of alcoholics were yelling on the sidewalk from the casino next door, we quickly checked-in, and I slipped immediately into my bed while my bumbling parents dropped pill bottles and glasses cases on the floor. I was horrifed and angry, but sleep came easy, as I was able to push the thoughts of the evening away by focusing instead on putting my middle-aged parents in a nursing home the moment we got back home.
The next morning I awoke reluctantly. I slept through breakfast and awoke to find a text from my dad, saying they were a few blocks down on the Avenida Central, and I should meet them. The Avenida, I discovered, was a pedestrian thoroughfare that essentially led from our hotel to the middle of the Casco Viejo district. It was Thanksgiving day, and I shot texts to a couple of friends and my brother before leaving the hotel. As I walked, it came as a surprise that people were actually celebrating Thanksgiving in Panama. There were parades, marching bands, and Panamanian flags hanging from windows where the parade was to pass. We navigated through alleys and police checkpoints, visiting cathedrals, several parks, and the Panama Canal museum before seeking lunch in a top-rated fonda I had found on Tripadvisor.
The menu, which was housed on a whiteboard behind the woman stationed in the front hall, was written in local slang, and the descriptions were messily jotted below. After a few minutes of frustrated translation, I ordered three different items off the list more or less at random, and we grabbed a couple bottles of Panama beer and sat down in a small table tucked in the corner. By the time our food came, our beers had been emptied and my father had grabbed a second drink, a tamarind smoothie, he thought, so before we ate I took a second beer from the fridge and told the maitre d’hotel that my dad got a “tamarind thing” so she would add that to our tab.
We ate our unknowable but delicious dishes. My dad’s meal looked like some kind of deep fried, crispy risotto, while I ordered a delicious baked carpaccio of, I want to say, pork. When our plates were taken away, a bowl with a large pile of snow was brought to our table. We looked at each other. Did I order this? I looked down and the waiter explained the three things that came with the raspado: malted milk powder, condensed milk, and tamarind juice.
“Are you sure the drink you ordered was made of tamarind?” I asked my father.
“Not really, no,” he said with a shrug.
It was far from a regrettable mistake, and we finished our high-end raspado with smiles, then left to see some more of Casco Viejo and then the Panama Canal. Before calling an Uber, we found a small group of indigenous peoples, who were selling molas, or colorful hand-sewn squares with varying patterns. The color schemes, and I mean this as a compliment, reminded me of Trader Joe’s. We bought nothing and caught an Uber to the canal at Miraflores Locks. We had been to the canal museum already, so I was not eager to go to another exhibit, but I was pleasantly surprised at how little there was to do at the Miraflores Lock. We sat in a theater for about fifteen minutes and watched a video about how locks worked, and how they constructed Miraflores, then went up to the top floor observation deck and watch for a half hour as a petroleum tanker entered the top of the lock, then was lowered down and released into the Pacific.
Still catching up from the previous night’s travel into the capital, I happily went back to the hotel, lounging and reading, in a pre-dinner siesta. My mother had her hopes set on “a nice meal in a nice restaurant downtown,” and I was happy to oblige. We located a rooftop bar overlooking a beautiful city square in the Casco Viejo district, and became thoroughly muddled by mojitos before taking the elevator down to the ground floor restaurant for Thanksgiving dinner. I ordered the $42 cochinillo or suckling pig, which came with warm, melted cheese, sliced root vegetables, and a rich, sweet molasses sauce. I slept soundly again that night with a belly full of the best Thanksgiving meal I’ve probably ever had.
The next day, we had a noon flight scheduled to Colombia, and I was excited to embark on the last new country of the trip, and on my first new continent since I had flown to Asia for the first time earlier that year. We ate at the lavish breakfast buffet then caught an Uber to Tocumen Airport, several miles east of our hotel. Our driver only spoke Spanish, so I sat in the front and chatted with him almost the whole way as he pointed to the favelas off the highway, and warned me to never go to them. As we disembarked, my mom gave an Italiañol “gratzi-as,” and I was able to manage without making a bitter comment about her ignorance. Besides, our driver was nice, and I took it that he was not offended.
It’s almost eight-thirty, and my train is pulling in to East Norwalk station. I get up from my seat to find that some girl I went to highschool with is waiting for the door to open. I look down and pretend not to see her. We are about to get off, and as I look down, I pretend to glance at her reflection in the window a moment after I see her about to glance my way in my peripheral vision. I turn to face her. I hope this is quick and painless.
“Hey, what are… you doing here?” she asks.
“I live here. I moved from Wilton after graduation.” The doors open and we walk out together.
We make small talk. I talk about how much I love it here, briefly. And then the inevitable.
“So where do you go now?”she asks.
“I’m at UConn Stamford now.”
After exactly two years, you would think I would get comfortable giving this answer, or would have found an answer that works. Am I ashamed? No. But am I totally happy, or at least in a college environment where I feel at home? Also no.
Clearly, I don’t like talking to people I went to high school with, and I don’t like comparing myself to them. Maybe that’s because that’s all I ever used to do. Maybe it’s just because the people I went to high school with are monumentally boring.
College, I will always say, obstructs true learning. In our couple of moments chatting between train and parking lot, my old classmate asked what I was studying. I told her I was pursuing dual degrees in Business Data Analytics and English literature.
“That’s an interesting combination,” she said.
If I had a dollar every time I heard that, I might be able to afford a third bachelor’s degree. Hoping to deflect the spotlight away from myself, I asked what she was doing there in East Norwalk, several miles from the town in which we both grew up.
“I’m taking a gap semester. Working and stuff. I traveled a bit too at the beginning.” Maybe this wouldn’t be totally painful.
“Where to?” I pressed her.
“Italy, mostly doing the solo travel thing and occasionally meeting friends who were studying abroad. You know, finding myself.”
She said this in a very subtle tongue-in-cheek way that was practically part of our highschool’s speech patterns. Sarcasm, but never harsh, never mean, and always subtle.
“I kind of didn’t like solo travel though. It was an experience, but I definitely did not like the solo travel thing,” she concluded.
I told her I definitely felt weird the first couple of times, but we agreed solo travel offered an empowering experience regardless. I unloaded my travel history from the last year and she was definitely taken aback, like many are when I tell them what I do, what I have done, where I have been.
I said goodbye, as both our parents had arrived to pick us up, and we wished one another a happy holidays and so on. As I reflected, I thought about how she proclaimed to go on this solo travel trip to ‘find herself,’ and the irony that she couldn’t quite handle being alone. She had either found herself and the self overwhelmed her, or she had not found herself to keep her company, and was driven mad by the loneliness of the road. When I thought of these two likelihoods, I laughed. Not out of malice or a perceived adventurous superiority, but because I had felt the same way.
When backpacking, you learn to handle the bipolar bedfellow that is your own self: the one who can spend days and nights manically traversing continents like a meth-muddled Alexander the Great, to only be faced by a depression as deep as your blood, that ebbs away at the will to live as you realize you have never been more estranged. The hot runs cold, the desire to continue fades to a want to finish, to just go home. That’s when you realize there is no home to go to. There’s a house, sure. There are parents and their two cats. There is a bed with a world map hanging above it where you paint in the countries you have traveled to. There is a jar of coins you’ve been adding to since the sixth grade that you plan on spending on airline tickets. If there is a home, this is it: being alone with your thoughts, writing, reading, and wandering from place to place. Of course, one can be agoraphobically trapped in the self, as one can trap himself in his house. Still others cannot live with themselves, and must learn to dwell in one’s own company and space. They need to learn to pick up after themselves, feed themselves, and take care of themselves. They must build their homes in ways that are livable.
In this way one must also cultivate a version of him- or her-self with whom they can live.
To learn to both build the self, yet not let it become too unwieldy; this, I concluded, is how I find myself everywhere I go.
Arriving at San Jose airport is what you might expect after hearing about half your Facebook friends trips to Costa Rica to surf, track down rare rainforest frogs, or retire. With only two days allotted for our trip in Costa Rica, it was hard to get off the beaten path, especially since it has become so well worn by Californians and Connecticutans alike. Here’s the thing, though: perhaps this is the best way to see the country. At least the first time. This entire trip, I was eager to speak Spanish, eager to try the food, and eager to try to assimilate. In Costa Rica, a nation of expats, this is easy. Blonde-haired, even blue-eyed Spanish speakers abound, and Americans are equally commonplace. It may not look it, but maybe this is the most authentic Costa Rica. Besides, I was certainly not about to ignore the fine volcanic beaches in favor of my own intrepid explorer fantasies, so I aimed to reduce my stress levels and just relax, man. I could live La Vida Local in the next country; Costa Rica, I told myself, was for chilling. And I’ll be honest, it was a lovely country, and in fact the one where I felt most at home on this excursion. Naturally, I would generally be opposed to flying thousands of miles to feel at home, but it was a nice change of pace from my usual fixation on getting lost and seeking out cultures that were the most unlike the one I grew up in.
Joaquin, our Uber driver from the airport, had the aforementioned blueish eyes and blondish hair, and spoke in a Spanglish everyone in the car could understand. We asked how to spend our time in San Jose, before we departed on a bus the next day, and he gave several recommendations. The most Costa Rican dish, he mentioned, was asort of tortilla and potato meal, and the place to go for it was Barrio Escalante. The least Costa Rican dish, he laughed, could be found at any one of the dozens of Taco Bells in town. That’s right, those who drive from the airport downtown will be surprised to hear that Taco Bell not only exists in Costa Rica, but is actually quite popular. The ride took us to our hotel in downtown, where we stepped out in the seemingly quotidian drizzle (the country is shrouded in rainforests, after all), checked inyo our hotel with a team of five receptionists-in-training, and eventually made it to our two-story room. On the bottom floor, a pull out couch and a kitchen was bestowed upon me, its sole inhabitant. On the floor above, my parents claimed a shower, bathroom, and king-sized bed. We tried not to get too comfortable, since we had a city to conquer that evening. My mother had booked a tour for the late afternoon, and we were determined to find the bus station before the tour started to make our early morning bus to the coast that much easier.
We succeeded in locating the Tracopa bus terminal, and we booked our tickets and confirmed the time of the 6 am bus to Uvita. This town, which I had chosen randomly off a map for its perfect halfway-ness between San Jose and the border, was essential to the trip. This would be the only full day we would have outside the capital cities, so I made sure we chose a coastal town several hours down the road so that we could take in the rich coast. But more on that later.
The tour on which we spent the evening thoroughly introduced us to some of the city’s tourist highlights and included a chef-prepared local meal with wine included. We started in the town’s indoor Central Market, where we stopped at a stand that exclusively sold natural medicinal herbs and roots. Our guide talked about some of the more popular homeopathic remedies, and quizzed us on some of the medicinal uses. As we stood packed in a narrow passage, shoppers regularly would pass by with a “con permiso” (excuse me), to which our guide would say “propio,” which I assumed was a way of responding ‘your good.’ Across the way were several “sodas,” the local word for casual cafe-style restaurant (like a fonda), where the guide explained the menu. Casado, which means ‘marriage’ or ‘married’ in Spanish, is also a Costa Rican dish whose name originated from when single workers would eat only beans and rice for lunch, while married ones had a full plate of meats and vegetables. Thus, the dish became known as “casado,” for its association with the married man who was lucky enough to have a wife to make him lunch. After, we stopped at a “Sorbeteria,” which had purportedly been selling just one flavor of sorbet (a yellow eggnoggy custard with nutmeg, allspice, vanilla, cinnamon, and cloves) for over a century. It did not disappoint. Next, we stopped by a florist, a butcher, a produce stall, and the market’s first bar, which was cordoned off behind rubber strips to keep the drunks out of the public eye. Outside of the market, we saw the national theater, San Jose’s small financial district, and a collection of local sculptures celebrating Costa Rica’s agricultural past and present.
From there, our group of about 8 people hopped onto a local bus toward our dinner destination. Our guide informed us that, since the restaurant we were supposed to go to closed on Mondays, the meal would be served at the chef’s house. We were excited by this opportunity to have a meal at a local’s house, and I was grinning at how well this trip was working out. Not only did I not have to sleep in bedbug-ridden hostels, the hotels we were staying in were really quite nice, and we were really getting the top-tier local experience on this tour. And, I didn’t have to pay for it! On the bus, the guide talked about the many types of tourism that Costa Rica offered: ecotourism, medical tourism, conventional beach-tourism, something called “business tourism” where companies would fund retreats for the staff, and of course sex tourism.
“Sex tourism?” my father asked.
I could not tell if his disbelief was serious or not. Was he just pretending to be surprised because his wife and son were present, or was he genuinely not aware that any country has sex tourism, if the tourist is wealthy, desperate, and/ or brave enough?
Our guide concluded his list with something he called “mental health tourism.” While miniscule in comparison to the others, he explained that this was one of the most interesting to him. Apparently, suicidal teens from super-rich backgrounds, who are given companies on birthdays and have never had to work for anything, are sent to Costa Rica to learn how to farm, how to put seeds into the ground and nurture them. They learn how to take pride in making things with their hands, and to find new meaning in life. Adrenaline-inducing activities like surfing, ziplining, and rock climbing are introduced to their daily schedules. This, I imagine, creates a new ambition to live. The story reminded me of Benjamin Percy’s story “Suicide Woods,” wherein a group of terminally depressed young people is led by a counselor who tries his best to get everyone to want to live again.
Over dinner, our small group of three American couples (plus the tour guide and me) enjoyed a sort of local meatloaf with a orange tomato-based sauce with a dessert of banana bread and guava ice cream. Conversation pertained, as it often does in a multigenerational environment of couples, on the universal thing of family. I, despite having a family, felt like this was not my conversation to have, as these older people had their familial romanticisms that I (thank God) have not picked up yet. If you see me cooing over the steps of an infant, or marveling about any cliche of parenthood, you, dear reader, have my express permission to shoot me. I sipped my wine instead of participating in the evening’s banalities.
At six the following morning, we caught the first bus to Uvita whose name, from what I learned in high school Spanish, means “Little Grape” for some reason. I suspected a beach, and some expats, and perhaps a nice place to sip rum, and I yearned for this part of the trip dedicated to coastal Costa Rica. We booked a room at the Hotel Samsara, about a mile and a half from the curb where we were dropped of, the lone riders who stayed on the bus the entire trek from San Jose. The hotel had a pool, an extensive tract of undeveloped rainforest the stretched to the ocean, and Cuban restaurant called La Habana Vieja which opened nightly by the hotel owner. Raul, the owner, is an originally Cuban, then Canadian, now Costa Rican expat who runs the hotel in his semi-retirement. In his restaurant, where we ate dinner, Raul makes good Cuban cuisine, paying homage to his first homeland, and makes drinks that are not too strong but pleasant. The regular bouts of thunder and rain make the covered outdoor restaurant a fine place to feel as if you are one with nature, without having to be soaked in it. That day, we went to a slightly more upscale open-air place for lunch and ate ceviche, fajitas, and fish, an unremarkable meal, apart from the ceviche appetizer, which was so heavily doused in citrus that it doubled as a beverage. According to Raul, the beyond burgeoning tourist scene has made fresh seafood a bit more challenging to come by in Costa Rica. According to him, most of the fishermen converted their boats to skiffs with which to shuffle around tourists in the rainforest. Shrimp, he said, seems to be the only seafood that remains more profitable, and thus the ceviche is always fresh.
The following morning, my father and I strolled along the side of the busy road to the beach. It was perhaps only half-mile, and when we got to the gate we found that foreigners had to pay a 6 dollar entry fee. I wanted to get some shots of the beach so we paid the fee, though I swam the day before for free by entering the park through the path on our hotel’s property. I had been bitten a few times by mosquitoes on that rainforest trek, and was not eager to do it again.
As we entered the gate, I had only snapped a few misty photographs before a white pitbull came from the forest and started walking next to my father and me. He didn’t seem to be vicious, but we walked almost the entire northern stretch of the beach, and he kept on our tail. The dog had a tagless collar, and was fairly well-groomed, but I avoided touching him or petting him entirely. If I showed affection, he might stick with us longer, and I really did not want that to happen. What can I say? I am a cat person. As I snapped a few pictures on my iPhone of the waves and the misty rocks in the distance, the dog kept following, only occasionally leaving for a few moments to play with a rotting coconut or to bark at another dog. We walked back, past the entrance, and toward the inlet that formed the border between the beach’s property and the hotel’s. On the way, we came across a an impressive sand mandala, with the surf inching closer and closer as the tide rose. I took a couple pictures, and we were about to continue walking when a small, older woman began waving her hands and running toward us from the inlet.
“Thank you! Hello! Thank you for taking a picture of my mandala!” she called as she approached.
She had the most sincere, serene smile on her face. She wore a pink cotton tank top with a printed proclamation of piece emblazoned upon it in faux-Devanagari script. She spoke in an Eastern European accent and was as thin as some of the more slender pieces of driftwood nearby. She talked about how much she loved Costa Rica, where she moved recently from her native Croatia. We let her know we were going to Croatia together in January, and she told us about a “sea organ” that we had to check out. It worked by having air pumped into it using the high and low tides, forming notes derived completely from nature. We were talking a while, when she asked what happened on my dad’s arm, which was covered in a small cast. He told her about how he had gotten cancer in his leg over the summer, and how they had to take a skin graft from his wrist. This woman, Adriana was her name, asked if she could do a quick healing for him, as she had been “hanging out with some shamans recently.” My dad, naturally, accepted and stood in the sand with his legs straight and eyes closed as Adriana spoke calmly behind him, pulling her hands down his arms and shoulders as she pensively affirmed his healing. It felt like a sort of hypnosis, but rather than trick the mind, she was trying to convince the body to become whole again. As she was doing this, the dog got bored and began kicking sand all over the three of us, as I stood awkwardly, not sure if it would be more distracting for me to stop the dog than to let him resume, so I waited in silence as the pitbull messily dug a hole in which to bury an old coconut he had found.
After, we had to go and catch our bus to the border, so we bid Adriana adieu and went to the wade through the inlet to get the most direct route to our hotel. My now-healed dad (who is not supposed to allow his open leg-wound to get wet) quickly took his shoes off and walked through the ocean water. I insisted that he lean on my shoulder, but he said he was fine. Perhaps he was being stubborn; perhaps he was healed. We made it to the other shore and were still being followed by the dog. We hiked over rickety rope bridges and across fire-ant thoroughfares and could not lose him. We finally made it back to the hotel room, and closed the door behind us. When we emerged, the dog was laying in a corner being patted by Raul.
“Where did you find this dog?”
“He followed us all the way from the beach,” my dad replied.
“He is an expensive dog. He must belong to one of the foreigners camping near the beach. No local would have such a dog.”
We packed our bags, apologized for bringing back an non-paying guest, and caught a ride into town with the maid. She smiled, and spoke in a simplified Spanish, which I happily translated for my parents as she bid us farewell and asked about our further travel plans. When we arrived at the terminal we waited for an hour for the bus, which was running late from somewhere in the north. However, the bus stations in Central America offer lots of amazing food, and so we sat planning the next leg of the journey over fried chicken and enyucado, a deep-fried yuca patty filled with spicy pulled chicken. Eventually, a green bus with ‘DAVID’ displayed on the destination screen pulled into the last stop, waited for the driver and passengers’ ten-minute break, and we paid the driver 39,000 Colones ($65 or about $22 each) for three tickets.
As I landed in Mexico, a dad with a wife and teenage daughter was looking at some kind of softcore video of some woman taking off a blue plaid shirt. I tried to deduce whether he downloaded this before he flight for this express purpose or if he was disobeying the no-internet-during-landing rule. I looked closer with my peripheral vision and it seemed he was simply browsing through social media. Odd.
I too am on this trip with my family, though I have the luxury of being separated from them by a few rows, thanks to their less impulsive flight booking practices. They are along for the ride on this trip. I have “backpacked” with my dad before, but never my mom, who has already said several times how this trip “wasn’t her style” and how “when she goes to a place she wants to experience it. I try my best not to take this as a personal attack. To my immediate left is an empty seat then a window seat occupied by an overweight man who seems to have purchased both, since he confidently put a back in the seat between us, sure that it would not be taken. I am grateful for the extra legroom. It is a good flight from JFK to Mexico City, and I happily read almost the entire trip. I have picked up the new novel A Terrible Country, my first recreational read since sometime in the summer. Finally, some fiction I don’t have to respond to! So I suppose I won’t do so. This ends my literary discussion.
I know this is a vacation, for me, my mother, and father, by it won’t be easy. It’s never easy. It gets easier: you get smarter, more culturally aware, and your foreign language skills improve. But it never gets easy. I don’t do this because it’s easy, and having my less sprightly parents will undoubtedly pose a challenge. Nonetheless we embark with confidence, for who knows from whence our troubles will come? It’s better not to know, go boldly and deal with problems as they arise. Despite my sureness, my largely unearned confidence and borderline cockiness, I know deep down this will be a learning experience for me as well. On this trip I will get better. I will get better at speaking Spanish, I will get better at logistics, I will get better at research. Such is the skill set of the world navigator, the explorer: to ever seek to know more, and to wander further. I fear that what I hear about the dangers of Mexico City and Colombia will be true, and this will by my, our, last voyage.
Surely, this will not be Club Med, or a cultural walking tour of Manhattan despite whatever machinations my mother has in store for turning this odyssey into such. She was invited, to be sure, and invited under the assumption that the trip would change given her presence. The trip, however, could not sustain a complete remodel. Our itinerary was too tight to avoid public transit and thus, I reasoned, the real Central and South America.
Paradoxically, I also had to keep my mom happy, not just safe. The trip had to conform to her needs, otherwise she may refuse to let me travel alone anymore. I had to appear capable. My Spanish would certainly help in this regard.
On the logistical side, I had been researching this trip for months. We would travel in cities primarily by Uber, which many online and personal acquaintances recommended from a safety standpoint. Rides on Uber are tracked, and drivers are vetted and reviewed, minimizing the risk of kidnapping. At least now, if I get kidnapped, maimed, or otherwise ‘taken for a ride’ other than that which I ordered, I could leave a 1-star review and, if I am feeling particularly disgruntled, I could refuse to leave a tip.
Our Uber from the airport passed in silence. I’m not ready to be a cheery tourist. Not yet. Mexico City must prove itself. Once this Uber drops us off safely, I’ll be ok.
We arrived in one piece at Lagunilla market, the last of the open open-air markets at 6 pm on a Sunday. It’s marvelous. We shared a mango raspado, a Mexican snow cone. And a kebab of strawberries, dipped in melted chocolate and Cocoa Puffs. In the confusion of the market, in which we seemed to be the only ones confused, we came across a man selling chapulines, or toasted grasshoppers. I offered a 5 peso coin for just a few but the man was adamant that I simply take them. So I did, thinking I had to get my parents to try them, or at least watch me try them and perhaps reconsider the cowardly child they think I am. My mother seemed to do neither, and I was left splitting the two grasshoppers with my increasingly adventurous and recently retired father. That man knows how to burn and rave at close of day. The crickets were surprisingly good (I noted lime and salt), and as I crunched I considered the role consumable crickets have played in my life as of late. These snacks, which are somewhat common in many parts of the world, are in a gray area in my gustatory profile. I still get a novel pleasure out of eating such things, yet each time the experience of eating bugs grows slightly less novel, and actually somewhat normal. I wonder if, some day, I will buy crickets or grasshoppers buy the bag and not give it a second thought.
Wandering through the stalls of grilled meats, bootleg DVDs and tacos, we eventually came to a clearing in the blanketed bazaar where a young girl was singing a Spanish song into a microphone to the block while her father played guitar behind. We stood awkwardly as the joking, laughing, smiling block party resumed around us. Cars passed, pressing our bulky backpacking into locals hanging out on milk crates. A woman in her mid thirties with lustrous brown skin and bright red lipstick was selling micheladas. For those unschooled as I was, micheladas are, from what I gather, constructed as follows: a large paper cup has its rim coated coated in a cherry fruit paste, not unlike the saccharine, almost crunchy, tooth-cleaning paste my dental hygienist would coat my teeth with when I was younger. The still- wet candy coating is dipped into dried sesame-like seeds, and the bottom of the cup is coated in lime juice and salt. Next the cup is filled with a 40-oz beer until the foam starts to run over the side.
The woman handed the drink to me, and instructed me to sip the foam so she could empty the beer bottle in the cup. Thinking we were done after the 40 oz. was emptied, my parents and I passed the cup around once before the woman took it back.
“Clamato???” she asked.
“Gringo!” she yelled playfully with a teasing eye-roll. I yielded and she laced my drink with red liquid from an unlabeled bottle.
While I can say that it was not totally disgusting, I can say that clam juice and tomato was not an improvement to the cherry-beer I had been enjoying earlier. When I get home and talk with one of my coworkers who is half-Mexican, half-Guatemalan, she will correct my pronunciation (me-chel ah dahs not Michelle-ah-das) and say that I shouldn’t have given in to this plea to add clamato to my drink. She will say “yeah that’s weird,” and I will agree. The world may be polarized on everything. One may call a tomato a fruit or a vegetable. However, I think it is time that we acknowledge the atrocity that is Clamato, and try to rid the human race of this tragedy. My parents gave up quick, and I made it halfway down before tossing my seafood soda into the trash.
For dinner, we purchased a Seuss-esque green chorizo, grilled and chopped atop a flame-fed griddle the size of a playground foursquare grid, and pile on a bluish-gray pupusa. We also ordered a tortilla of the same confederate uniform hue, and had it piled with a very banal meat-colored diced pork. As we stood around the griddle, backpacks bumping into nearly every passerby, we tried to ignore the marketplace around us eyeing our every out-of-place move, while simultaneously trying to take in all that was happening in the tent-city market. Upon receiving our meal, we pulled chairs for three different tables, whose mostly hipster-y occupants were happy to lend a chair to us.
Our long walk to our hotel in the Reforma section provided a pretty nighttime tour of a handful of Mexico City’s (thankfully) safe neighborhoods. South of Lagunilla, past two Santa Muerte shrines, we arrived at El Zocalo, the most popular square in Mexico. Strolling through past dusk, one cannot help but see the comparison between El Zocalo and Times Square. Mexico’s most tourist-laden district has fewer lights and advertisements for teen clothing stores, but off-brand Iron Men still roam in an attempt to get a few dollars from tourists, and street performers still set up their spaces to breakdance or play music in one as in the other. However, you will notice the main draw at the Zocalo is more magically real than the Times Square depicted in the movie Birdman and all the works of Carlos Fuentes combined. In the eerie dusk of the mountain city, drums began to beat and the smoke of some unrecognizable herb filled the air as we saw Nahua natives were waving smoldering plants in cup, and waving them over the heads of participants, while another group were entrancing a ring of tourists with their hypnotizing dance. I reluctantly pulled myself away as my mother quickly fled the scene to continue on to the hotel.
Heading west through a packed pedestrian thoroughfare, we saw more performers, artists, and native Speakers for the Dead. Approaching the Alameda Central, and the Museo de Bellas Artes, the crowd thinned and the city gave way to quiet paths, trees, and intertwining lover just out of the lamplight, absolutely devouring each others’ faces. On the other side of the park, older lovers were packed more closely, dancing in circles like convection currents. The moist lipped millenials on the dark side of the park seemed unaware that they had this side of the park to look forward to in old age.
We passed the Museo Diego Rivera, and strolled down Paseo de Reforma to the Cuauhtemoc Monument, then turned left. The sun had set hours earlier on Mexico City, and while our stomachs swelled with green meat and clam juice, we felt as though we were owed conventional Mexican fare, after walking so far out on a limb on our arrival. The feet of the older cohort in our party were aching, so we sought the most suitable Mexican restaurant within a block’s radius of our hotel. We settled “Vip’s,” the Distrito Federal equivalent of Denny’s. I ordered a Tecate Lite, which I did not know existed, and was satisfied. The ‘rents got lemonades, the first of many on the trip. To this day, I ask myself, “Why lemonades?” There must have been some reason. Were they afraid of the water, so they misguidedly opted for something that wasn’t water, even though it was undoubtedly made from it? Or did they think they grew lemons here, and that this was the ideal beverage? Perhaps my parents do not drink anymore, and they just didn’t tell me? But they sipped the michelada, I remembered. Oh well, some mysteries are to remain unsolved forever. Between the three of us, we ordered chips and a salsa verde, my mom ordered a tortilla soup, I ordered chicken enchiladas, and my dad got a plate of chicken mole. As one would expect from a diner in nearly any culture, nothing was spectacular and the flavor in nearly every dish seemed subdued. My weary wanderers were happy however, sitting in a soft, diner-like cushioned booth. We retired early to mitigate the effects of the early flight the following morning.
Victor Bernabei is just another millenial travel blogger. But here's the twist: He isn't a millenial! His goal is to see as many countries as he can, and spread the message that the world is not as scary as the news wants you to believe, and that there is beauty in all people, places and things.