I wanted a guitar. Sita lent me hers and we traded songs until nearly dawn. It had nylon strings and she painted a tree on the front. But it didn’t matter much what it looked like, or even sounded like. A Panamanian man behind me played a quarter coin and a coffee cup for hours. He relinquished his instrument to teach us a Panamanian indigenous dance. Mostly it was running in a circle, but after hours of playing music I felt like I was among friends and I relished the moment.
I left San José on a bus at 6 am and reached the pacific side of the Nicoya Peninsula after lunch. Beautiful crashing surf (like the kind I dream about) greeted me before I even left the bus. Santa Teresa is my surfing fantasy.
I paddled out that afternoon until I couldn’t move my arms. I rested enough to try again and ran back to the water. I watched the sun set from my surfboard that night and all I could think about was the next morning.
I walked down the path to the beach with Jonah.
“There’s no one even out right now,” I yelled. The waves were breaking perfectly: head high, without a breath of wind. “I don’t even know what to do with myself.” I admit I started running towards the waves. I noticed that Jonah wasn’t running next to me. He was standing on the path with a puzzled look.
“I’ve never seen you this excited. You’re like a little kid,” he told me. I accepted his compliment and continued running toward the water.
We spent days in the ocean and nights by the fire on the beach. The hostel only had space for two, so Jonah and Roy slept on the beach. We improvised s’mores and watched the stars. As I walked back to the hostel and the noise of the ocean faded I envied Roy and Jonah.
Roy told us about a beach he knew on the other side of the peninsula. We caught a bus to Montezuma. Savannah bought a pineapple when we switched busses. When we arrived Roy took us to a path leading to waterfall. We carried our bags (and our pineapple) up the trail. I jumped off a rock into the clear pool. Roy climbed onto the rock under the falls. I joined him and let the water massage my back. Some new friends from the hostel in Santa Teresa took a picture for our album cover when Jonah and Savannah climbed up also. We continued up a steep hill, grabbing at plants and remnants of rope for support.
We took a lunch break at the top of the waterfall, letting the pineapple juice drip over our hands. The stream cascaded over three steps to get to the pool below. It dropped off a small rock face into a calm pool with a rope swing to the side. Then it fell 30 feet into another deep pool before plunging 70 feet off the final cliff.
After lunch Roy launched himself off the second waterfall into the pool below. After more than a little hesitation we all followed him off the cliff. For eons mothers have asked, “If Johnny jumped off a cliff would you do it too?” The answer, for me, is yes.
Andy climbed down from the path. He used to work for HP but quit his job to travel the world. I thought of how his co-workers would envy him. I promise never to turn into the kind of person too afraid to quit their job and do something a little crazy. He told us about Montezuma and led us to a beautiful view of the ocean on the way down the hill.
We built a campfire on the beach. Dinner was peanut butter sandwiches and a bottle of rum. Savannah and Roy ventured into the water. We met a group of girls who told us about bioluminescent algae in the water. They splashed near the shore and a few green spots blinked at them. I followed them and waved my hand underwater, and it lit up neon green. The waves crept up on us silently, and green flecks dotted the whitewash.
In the morning we rode a bus across the country. A dog tried to board the bus, but he couldn’t pay the fare. A ferry took us to Puntarenas and we boarded a new bus. Jonah and I stood in the aisle trying not to fall asleep because all the seats were occupied. The next morning we caught the bus from Puerto Viejo to Sixaola in the pouring rain, but it let up in time for us to cross the border into Panama. A long wooden bridge separates Panama from Costa Rica. Backpackers mingled with cars and locals as they traveled. A boat taxi took us to the island chain of Bocas del Toro, just south of the border.
By day out hostel resembled a ten year olds dream. The entire structure rested like a dock on wooden pillars in the shallows. The green walls had speakers built in, and never stopped playing music. The deck outside had two large holes so you can jump in the ocean. On one side a trampoline perches on the edge of the dock. Around the corner a set of wooden swings sways over the turquoise water. I could see the water from my bed.
Someone approached the owner, as we were about to ask for a room.
“Do you have a TV here?” she asked.
“No. And we never will. Your on vacation why would you ever want to watch TV,” he responded angrily.
“It rots your brain,” another woman added.
“Then what are you supposed to do when it rains?” she snapped.
“Read a book. Make a friend. You’re on vacation, but you will never find a TV here,” he answered in disbelief. I was almost deterred by the incredible rudeness, but he sold me with the TV comment.
We put our bags down and walked to the grocery store to try and find some popcorn. Accidentally we bought chicken corn, which looks and smells like popcorn but never pops. The smell and false hope brought Sita to the kitchen. We shared our failed popcorn and she shared her guitar. We played songs on the dock while boats of people arrived for a party that night.
Roy and Savannah started painting each other’s faces with watercolors. Roy gave Sita a blue and gold design stretching down her neck and shoulder. She advertised for the artists and brought a few new customers. Jonah’s looked a little dramatic with lots of sharp lines. It was a little Mike Tysonish. He may have looked a little too bad ass. The cocaine dealers were convinced that he wanted some drugs and would hardly leave him alone, but considering his hardcore facial tattoo it’s hard to blame them.
I lost my shoes but we decided to go dancing on a different island anyways. When we returned the party was ending. Sita got her guitar from the room and we bid the partygoers farewell with a few songs. She sang in English and Spanish, always finding something people would sing along with. When she ran out of songs she made them up and convinced us to join. The cook started rapping in Spanish over Sita’s guitar, and was surprised when she responded with her own verse. Roy used a stick and an ashtray. Savannah improvised a drum from a six-liter water bottle. We sang until nearly morning, forgetting about anyone who had already gone to bed.
Sita woke me up the next morning to ask if I wanted breakfast. I wasn’t sure if I was dreaming, and couldn’t tell if the night before was a dream. Turquoise water winked at me from below the floorboards. I called that proof enough and accepted breakfast. We ate banana pancakes with chocolate syrup (the breakfast as well as the architecture was conceived of by a ten year old). Most people were still asleep so we had the trampoline and swing set to ourselves.
We took a boat with a few friends to another island with a beautiful beach. We decided to come back the next night to stay. The beach stretched for nearly a mile with a background of tropical forest. Mangroves reached over the sand and tried to touch the ocean. The waves were noisy and constant.
We met Sita, Hanz and Andy when we walked out onto the beach the next morning. We swam until our fingers pruned. Jonah invented a game. Two people stand on a long and you have to try and knock the other person off by rolling the log. We practiced our handstands as the sky turned pink and walked back to the kitchen in the dark.
We invaded the kitchen and pooled our resources to make a vegetable bean soup. Ivo shared his beer while Roy and Sita experimented with vegetables. Andy and Sita shared their Cuban spices with another traveler. A spear fisherman cooked his catch. We cooked while we ate and I lost track of time. I’m not sure we ever even achieved a final product. It felt more like an exercise in sharing food with others. Savannah cooked rice. Jonah chopped carrots. Andy soaked some vegetables in vinegar. Hanz played the music and we thanked him for testing all the food for poison.
Andy and Sita left to grab their guitars. We shared songs and sang together. We passed around the maracas and the guitars and everyone sang together. Sita kept all the songs she knew in a book. She pointed to a song I didn’t recognize.
“It’s a popular Portuguese song,” she told me. “But I don’t think the words are right. I got them from an Italian in Cuba. After he gave me the words he admitted that he didn’t really know them. It’s just what he thought they sounded like.” She laughed. “But I guess what you lack in talent you have to make up with confidence.” Near one o’clock in the morning Andy shared his version of “Born to be Wild”. We all yelled the chorus with him at the top of our lungs. We forgot courtesy and decided to live wildly for one song. Sita stood on the table and strummed along, while we shook the maracas ferociously. I will never hear a better rendition of that song, and I may never witness a more perfect performance of any song.
On the way home the electricity stopped working at the border. We waited in line for hours to get our passport stamps. We made it into Costa Rica half an hour before the border closed. We boarded our bus, but it wouldn’t start. We got out and pushed it to get it going. I made it back to San José shoeless, but I’m comforted by the fact that my Tevas are probably floating somewhere in the ocean enjoying the Caribbean sun.