I was fine. I had a perfectly tiny apartment in the perfect D.C. neighbourhood of Adams Morgan. I knew exactly where to brunch and when to brunch and what shoes to wear to brunch. I had a great job as an educational trainer and an environmental-lawyer boyfriend who spoke of a “ring.”
This ring, an imaginary thing, left me with questions. Questions I asked at happy hour, where people always seemed to have the answers. How did you know you were ready to get married? Why do we work so many hours? Don't you want to travel? Everyone had answers, but those answers left me with more questions. Still, I was fine. Totally fine. I juggled life exactly how I was supposed to juggle it in this city where people, I had recently noticed, don’t smile. So when my cousin announced he was getting married in Costa Rica, I knew it was time for a break and decided to make a vacation out of it.
I spent the first three nights in a historic hotel right in the middle of Costa Rica’s bustling capital, San José, but I wanted to see the jungle beaches I had seen online. With my guidebook unopened, I asked a smiling waiter where I could find them. He grabbed a piece of paper and wrote down one word: “Montezuma.”
The ride to the remote beach town was bumpy, too bumpy to read my still-unopened guidebook, so I arrived with no expectations. Monkeys and iguanas, lush greens and endless blues, and swinging vines greeted me as soon as I stepped off the bus, and I found my way to a colourful hostel that cost £6 a night. There, the elderly owner did not get up from her rocking chair, and in lieu of English, she checked me in with a smile. When we were done, a young girl handed me a coconut and straw (if you've never tried a fresh coconut, you must) and took me to my room.
Outside, a group of shirtless boys scaled barefoot up a palm tree and threw down coconuts. I was thinking about how their feet must look and feel from never wearing shoes when a beautiful man with skin the colour of coffee appeared. Just don’t talk to me. I will be totally fine sipping a coconut in silence, just don’t talk…
“¿Quieres ir a la cascada conmigo?” Damn, I really should have paid better attention in Spanish class.
“Sorry, umm, español no…”
“No worries,” and he smiled. “Do you want to go to the waterfall with me?”
“There’s a waterfall here?” I said too loud. I really hadn’t opened my guidebook.
“Si, hay una.” Yes, there is one.
He guided me to a 50-foot waterfall where monkeys and kids (and later me) swung from vines. I swam under a waterfall and knew what happiness felt like. By the time I returned to the hostel that night, my clothes were filthy, my hair dishevelled, and my makeup nonexistent, but I was beautiful. For the first time in a long time, I had an answer: I was moving to Montezuma.
After my cousin's wedding, I returned to D.C. for two weeks to quit my job, quit my pursuit of an engagement ring, and quit my life in the city. When I met with my totally fine boyfriend to tell him my plan, he surprised me with a plan of his own: an engagement ring. But when he slid it on my finger, it didn’t fit. That ring, the one that represented everything I was supposed to do with my totally fine life, did not fit.
I left the city with no ring and no boyfriend, but the jungle welcomed me back. It was as if time stood still. The monkeys were still swinging from the vines, the old woman at the colourful hostel was still rocking in her chair, and once again, I rented a room there. Every day, I returned to the waterfall, and every day, I found the happiness I felt the first time. Between swims, I volunteered at the public elementary school as an English teacher and practised Spanish with the hostel owner as she hung laundry in the ocean breeze. I walked around the quaint jungle town with a Spanish/English dictionary, a notebook and pen, and the goal to never leave.
Unfortunately, I did have to leave. My 90-day tourist visa was about to expire. But instead, I learned what it meant to make a "border run" and crossed into Panama, stayed a few nights, and returned with a 90-day visa stamp and a plan. I would open a language school for locals to learn English and travellers to learn Spanish.
I rented a tin-roof hut with a killer ocean view and opened the school. I was happy. One day, a group of students from San José University came to observe my English class. And there he was, the man who took me to the waterfall my first day in Montezuma. I didn’t see him as much as I heard him, smelled him. His name was César and he was a university student studying sustainable tourism. Instead of giving me a coconut, he invited me out to drinks with his friends.
Five years later, we got married barefoot on the beach, and we now live right by that waterfall. Our lives merged completely, and we now own three schools together and have two beautiful jungle babies. And I, the woman whose shoe collection was once a source of pride, now own one pair of flip-flops and can almost climb a tree barefoot. Life in Costa Rica is not without responsibility or stress, but who can care when your commute to work is a five-minute walk down a dirt road lined with hibiscus flowers? Shoeless.
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